Airmen operate America's fortress

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarrod Chavana
  • 3rd Combat Camera Squadron
Known as America's Fortress, Cheyenne Mountain is portrayed in movies, books and documentaries as a top secret base similar to that of Area 51.

Built during the Cold War and housed 2,000 feet within a granite mountain, the installation is a survivable, reliable and secure complex. It provides missile and air warning, space situational awareness, command and control, and cyber capabilities to defend North America.
The mission is in direct support of North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command. NORAD is a combined command with operations conducted in partnership with the Canadian armed forces since the facility was established.

A small city lies behind the two 25-ton and one 17-ton blast doors that protect the more than 500 service members and civilians performing the critical missions conducted within AFSPC's 721st Mission Support Group's granite facility.

When the blast doors close, the AFSPC installation becomes a self-sustaining city; with the 721st Security Forces Squadron, 721st Communications Squadron and 721st Civil Engineering Squadron among other tenant units and facilities.

"Cheyenne Mountain is more unique than most bases being we are within a mountain," said Senior Airman Zachary Castillo, a member of the 721st SFS. "It's amazing to be a part of what the Air Force does here every day."

The 721st MSG operates, maintains, secures, sustains, mobilizes, tests, and controls the worldwide warning and surveillance system for North America, normally referred to as the Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment Weapon System.

"It's our job to ensure constant data flow for the strategic warning system for NORAD, U.S. STRATCOM and AFSPC," said 2nd Lt. Rachel James, a 721st CS crew commander. "We tie into the AFSPC mission, as they own the assets that we monitor.

"We are constantly looking at computer screens to monitor circuits, switches and where this information is going to transverse," she added. "Missile events occur and launches occur and it really is the (potential) nuclear aspect of it, which forces us to be tucked away in a mountain with blast doors. This information is critical for our forward users as they need to know when they are happening and exactly what type of event it is."

Customers of this unique capability include military service components, the secretary of Defense and the president.

The excavation of Cheyenne Mountain began in 1961 using a then-revolutionary technique called "smooth-wall blasting." Miners completed the excavation in 367 days. The project used nearly 1.5 million pounds of explosives, provided by the Canadian government. The explosives produced more than 460,000 cubic yards of debris and opened approximately five acres within the mountain.

Critical to daily operations facility operations are engineers like, Roy Audibert, an electronic industrial controls mechanic lead with the 721st CES, and part of the central control center team. His team of engineers are the lifeline for the complex responsible for power, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, generators and water.
"If we don't do what we're supposed to do, then nothing can happen in the complex," Audibert said.

The 15 buildings within the mountain sit upon more than 1,300 springs, which weigh more than 1,000 pounds each and serve as giant shock absorbers to insulate the buildings from nuclear blast or earthquake damage. This is just one of the many safety mechanisms built into the base.

"The central control center basically controls all aspects of the life within the mountain," he said. "It's a point-and-click system, where we can pull up any room or system we want and trouble shoot it from here."

Each of the six generators within the complex provide more than 1,700 kilowatts of energy -- enough power to sustain about 5,000 homes. There are multiple redundancies built into all critical systems to ensure 99.99 percent reliability to support its critical missions.

As an underground complex with industrial hazards and critical national defense missions, it is essential for Cheyenne Mountain to have a dedicated fire department.
"This is a subterranean complex with industrial and administrative spaces and it has the potential to turn into one large confined space," said Chris Soliz, the assistant chief of CMAFS Fire and Emergency Services. "With office buildings and industrial hazards underground with critical mission systems and people, it's our job to resolve any issues as fast as we can."

Not only does the department have the ability to fight fires, but they are also qualified to perform technical high-angle rescues, essential to safely operating within the mountain.
Due to the sheer size of the complex, the fire and emergency services practice rapelling to maintain rescue skills unique to the vast complex.

"For Cheyenne Mountain to work, it takes multiple teams operating together to ensure mission success," said Col. Travis Harsha, the 721st Mission Support Group commander. "Without security, power and emergency services, AFSPC's Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment Weapons System would be unable to provide strategic and theater commanders with timely and accurate information critical to national defense.

"Like the granite it's housed in, America's Fortress stands survivable, reliable and secure to defend North America," Harsha said.