Saturday, October 07, 2006

NORAD Making Mountain Exit

More defense personnel poised to move out this month. As federal legislators seek details of the restructuring, Adm. Timothy Keating floats the idea of combining NORAD and other North American commands.

By Bruce Finley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Colorado Springs - Two months after the military's homeland defense chief announced a controversial restructuring of U.S. early-warning operations, changes began this week, with dozens of intelligence officers moving out of a Cold War-era facility deep inside Cheyenne Mountain.

And with 50 to 100 more military men and women poised to move out this month, Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Northern Command as well as North American Aerospace Defense Command, on Thursday broached an even bigger possibility: combining U.S. homeland defense, the U.S.-Canadian NORAD partnership and Canada's new Canada Command into a single new North American structure.

"That won't happen soon," Keating said in an interview. But given NORAD's "relatively narrow perspective" defending airspace, "it would be logical to consider further transformation efforts ... which could include ... some sort of combination of those three commands," he said.

Congressional overseers already are uneasy with the mountain move and are pushing for details. One main concern: survivability of the nation's defense nerve center, now located at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs.

While the granite-encased Cheyenne Mountain complex was built to withstand Soviet nuclear strikes, this newer surveillance center sits a stone's throw from a public highway and lacks its own drinking- water supply.

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., planned to visit the center today to talk with Keating. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which would have to approve $8 million to $30 million for reconfiguring operations, Allard said in a statement he still has "some concerns about the move that I hope will be addressed."

The pace of the move out of Cheyenne Mountain "sounds a little fast to me," and Congress "could shut it down" if concerns aren't completely addressed, said U.S. Rep Joel Hefley, a longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"I'm concerned about the cost of doing this," said Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican. "I'm concerned about the amount of money we put in out there in recent years to keep Cheyenne Mountain updated. And I'm concerned about security (at the new command center). We're talking about an age when a Ryder truck can pull up in front of a building, as in Oklahoma City, and knock the building down."

The changes in the works would virtually empty the mountain facility, where U.S.-Canadian crews for more than 40 years have scanned North American airspace and regularly scrambled fighter jets to guard against attack.

But surveillance crews in the newer command center at Peterson can perform most of the same early-warning functions with access to the same radar and satellite data. And defense planners say that with terrorism the primary threat, a "hardened" facility isn't crucial.

Keating has said the mountain facility would stay open under a "warm standby" arrangement that would enable quick activation in a crisis.

U.S. intelligence agencies now have offices near the new command center, where Canadian partners sit in.

Keating initiated the mountain move for efficiency - "we will save a lot of money in the end."

Leading lawmakers - including Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Carl Levin, D-Mich. - have been briefed, he said, and nobody has flat-out opposed the move. Security improvements in progress at the Peterson command center include increased guards, dog patrols and electronic surveillance.

"We're going to listen to everybody that's got input. But at the end of the day, one guy is charged by the president of the United States to make a decision," Keating said.

SOURCE: Denver Post

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