Hey there, human — the robots need you! Vote for IEEE’s Robots Guide in the Webby Awards.

Close bar

NORAD Gets a Makeover

The famous underground command center is updated for post-9/11 missions

3 min read

1 June 2005--On 11 September 2001, the day Al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the most sophisticated military command center in the world suddenly seemed a little backward. The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center's mission was to defend against an all-out attack by hundreds of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, not four hijacked airplanes.

Not so anymore. Last January the defense department took the wrapping off a new and improved Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), the home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, made famous in movies such as War Games (1983) and Failsafe (1964). Newly installed hardware and software provide its staff with technological tools that give them their best hope of accurate information about an unfolding event and let them confer efficiently and quickly. The new system also helps them avoid misjudgments while plotting the next move in a trial of wits and weapons against any potential enemy.

The original CMOC had been developed to coordinate the defense of the United States and Canada against Soviet bombers, and soon thereafter, against Soviet missiles. More than half a kilometer underground, in the heart of a mountain in Colorado, builders excavated an enormous cavern with a grid of intersecting chambers and installed fifteen shock-mounted and electromagnetic pulse shielded buildings, twelve of them three stories tall. Behind massive blast doors, self-contained for power, and linked to the outside world through multiply redundant land lines and antenna complexes, the facility has been on duty continuously since 1966.

Originally designed to survive near misses from multimegaton nuclear warheads (or at least, make any potential attacker unsure of its ability to wipe out the command center), the facility soon became an object of public fascination and even mythology. Tourists used to be able to visit, and someday may again. Hollywood portrayed dramatic nuclear war scenarios taking place in an idealized version of the complex.

Over the years, at the real center, new missions were added, including outer space surveillance. But the greatest revamping of the center's defense role occurred in the weeks after 11 September 2001, when an entirely new array of threats appeared. New specialists and support teams--such as a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration and a special domestic intelligence desk--were quickly lashed into existing command structures that had last been upgraded in the late 1980s.

The need for a new central command center was quickly recognized. But along with this perception there was the realization that Cheyenne Mountain's equipment needed above all to enable and enhance the new larger team's ability to confer, debate, evaluate, and reach consensus, and to do so rapidly and reliably in the face of threats more variable and unpredictable than ever before.

Despite the addition of a lot of new hardware, the center has a clean, sparse look. "Our intent was that the crews have the benefit of a better collaborative environment,"said Lockheed Martin project leader Bruce Mitchell (who has since left for another job). "Our approach was to isolate the people from the computer hardware they use--it's now in rooms downstairs--and to have clean sight lines between all the people in the room."

All operators can see a common set of video monitors. The four leftmost show news channels, while another display is dedicated to the online encyclopedia MSN Encarta, which the center turns to for "situational awareness,"according to Capt. Douglas Slaunwhite .

One map display shows predicted trajectories of the fireballs of satellite re-entry. These might trigger alarms or, rarely, drop debris onto the ground. Another map shows weather and gives information on all aircraft flying over the United States. More than 10 000 aircraft are tracked over North America every day, and on average every few days one of them is unidentified, requiring the launch of some of the 200 interceptor aircraft--ten times as many as there were on 9/11--across the continent.

Inauguration of the new center is only one more step in a larger process called Combatant Commander Integrated Command and Control System, or CCICCS. A number of subsidiary communications systems are still more than a decade old and their simple "stove pipe" architecture is being replaced by more modern network-centric concepts. But the team at the top of the pyramid--in military terms, at the point of the spear--now has been equipped with fully modernized systems designed to allow efficient lifesaving decision making.

For an interview with Duane Deal, commander of the Cheynne Mountain Operations Center, see "The Watchman,"by James Oberg

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions