When you think about underground military bases, it’s easy to come up with a scenario from a Hollywood doomsday movie; the end of Terminator III: Rise of the Machines. That movie ends up with the heroes taking refuge in a nuclear bunker which is also designed as a military command and control facility.
There really are such underground facilities owned by the Department of Defense, but their actual uses range from the U.S. nuclear missile program to tracking man-made space debris as part of space operations including NASA missions, International Space Station support, etc.
DoD Nuclear Missile Silos
There are many underground operations controlled by the Department of Defense, and America’s 6th branch of the military, Space Force, is responsible for a large number of them.
These locations are known as “the tip of the spear” in relation to the United States Military’s ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads. What specifically is the tip of the spear?
All the underground nuclear missile silos across the United States. Most are located in the northern tier states such as Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc. Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota is one of these “tip of the spear” bases, with a network of underground missile sites staffed by officers who are responsible for actual or practice missile launch operations, alert facility staff, and facility managers.
These underground operations run 24 hours a day and crews don’t work eight hour days then go home; underground operators sleep and work in shifts due to the remote locations of the missile silos. When news media crews are given permission to visit these site (with military escorts) they must often be driven long distances or flown to missile silo sites by helicopter.
Some silos are the subject of local controversy. In at least one Air Force Base in the northern tier there was an informal annual protest during the 1990s; a group of senior citizen activists attempted to access nuclear missile silo locations to stage in-person protests. Those are usually handled as local incidents, but like nuclear missiles themselves those protests are a throwback to an earlier time when there was still a Soviet Union and a substantial nuclear threat.
Cheyenne Mountain Complex
Cheyenne Mountain Complex is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is a massive secure, underground complex under some 2,000 feet of granite. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supervised the excavation of Cheyenne Mountain starting circa 1961 with nearly 700,000 tons of granite excavated for the project. Cheyenne Mountain served as home to critical NORAD operations during the Cold War.
The site became fully operational as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Combat Operations Center in 1967.
It was created to withstand a nuclear explosion as close as (approximately) one mile away and was considered at one time to be the only U.S. facility capable of enduring the effects of an electromagnetic pulse (which essentially disables all electronic equipment within a certain radius of a nuclear blast).
Missions at Cheyenne Mountain have included:
- Air Defense Command Satellite Systems
- Ballistic Missile Defense Center
- Combat Operations Center
- Space Defense Operations Center
- Cheyenne Mountain Complex Improvements Program (427M)
- Joint Surveillance System
- Survivable Communications Integration System
In 2002, the complex was redesignated Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. It was the beginning of the end of the old Cold-War era operations there. NORAD evolved with the times and in 2006 the mission moved out of the underground facility and was rehomed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
NORAD and USNORTHCOM integrated into a command center at the Headquarters building at Peterson where it continues operating in modern times.
In 2008 as Cheyenne Mountain facility celebrated its 50th anniversary, the old NORAD and USNORTHCOM underground sites were redesignated as an Alternate Command Center and would wind up being used for training and military exercise support.
The complex is maintained by the 21st Mission Support Group and some sources report that during peak operations at the underground facility approximately two thousand people worked there. In contemporary times a fraction of that number remains; some 200 staff in all.
Raven Rock Mountain Complex
The Raven Rock Mountain Complex (RRMC), also known as Site R, is an underground nuclear bunker close to Blue Ridge Summit in Pennsylvania. The site was built during the Cold War as an alternative location for Pentagon operations. There were a number of sites created for this purpose under a Continuity of Government plan that got its start as early as the American Revolution.
The installation’s largest tenant unit was listed by several sources as Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Raven Rock gained some new notoriety thanks to a tell-all book by Garret Graff. Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die was published in 2017 and explores the history of the site and the implications of its existence.
In 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution anticipating a need to relocate command and control of the nation’s business from Philadelphia to Baltimore. There wasn’t always a Continuity of Government doctrine to follow, but in 1952, President Truman ordered federal agencies to create contingency plans to manage a civil emergency.
Since the beginning of that initiative, as planning evolved it grew to include secret underground operations like Raven Rock which was meant to house senior Defense Department officials and their staff.
If America launched a nuclear strike, or launched missiles in retaliation for a nuclear strike, Site R/Raven Rock was intended as a facility where government operations could continue in spite of massive destruction from an enemy nuclear assault
But nuclear war wasn’t the only motivation for having such alternate locations. In 2006, Defense Department officials held a military exercise at Raven Rock; it was meant to test how the facility might be able to weather a flu pandemic. According to a Yahoo News report from March 17, 2020, the exercise operated in a scenario where the H5N1 bird flu epidemic began to affect operations in the United States.
The results? The DoD learned it was harder than they anticipated to keep infections from spreading, and it is no coincidence that this occurred around the same time that reports of DoD leaders questioning the continued value of such operations.
Department of Defense officials are not likely to discuss emergency evacuation plans in interviews or press queries related to the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. Whether a facility like Raven Rock is included in contingency planning in case the coronavirus emergency requires some form of evacuation of essential federal officials isn’t a topic of public discussion.
But the fact that a viral outbreak exercise was held at the facility in 2006 does lead some to wonder what the next move could be for the DoD should things escalate to the point where a relocation of Pentagon operations or other needs could require the use of Raven Rock.
Underground Facilities: Not All Are Run By The Military
Not all underground shelters, installations, or command centers are owned by the Department of Defense. One such underground installation is called Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center. It is officially described as “…a Department of Homeland Security facility, situated on 564 acres high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, approximately 64 miles west of Washington, D.C.”
According to official documents published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the site is described as an operations center intended for the President and cabinet members to shelter in should there be a nuclear attack on the United States. Vice President Dick Cheney is said to have fled to Mount Weather following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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