CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN AIR FORCE STATION, Colo. – Dr. Strangelove would have a heart attack: America's vaunted underground war room deep inside this granite mountain is being retired. Not only that, but Russian military men have been inside the place.
During the long nuclear standoff with Moscow, the nation's super-secret nerve center was a symbol of both Cold War might and apocalyptic dread, depicted in such movies as "WarGames" in 1983. But with the end of the Cold War, the war room is being put on "warm standby" to save money.
A staff will keep it ready to resume operations at a moment's notice if a blast-hardened command center becomes necessary, but the critical work is being shifted to Peterson Air Force Base, about 10 miles away.
"In today's Netted, distributed world we can do very good work on a broad range of media right here," Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said from his Peterson headquarters. "Right there at that desk, including one push-button to the president."
Moreover, the U.S. military says the countries that have succeeded the Soviet Union as the main threat to this country — hostile states such as North Korea and Iran — do not have the weapons to take out a command center in Colorado.
The United States and Canada spent hundreds of millions on early warning systems to detect a Soviet attack in the 1950s. All the information was funneled into a two-story blockhouse at Colorado Springs' Ent Air Force Base that could be taken out by a bazooka, NORAD historian Thomas Fuller said.
So crews began digging in 1961 on the edge of Colorado Springs on what used to be a ranch, eventually removing 700,000 tons of granite. Two 25-ton blast doors were constructed to protect the 15 tunnel-like buildings 2,400 feet underground. Each is suspended on thousand-pound springs or, as the joke goes, "the real Colorado springs."
The mini-city included a barbershop, medical clinic, convenience store, even a fire and police force.
For 40 years, staff in the mountain kept an eye on the Soviets from a command center in a small room.
Glitches resulted in false alerts in 1979 and 1980, neither coming close to the level pictured in the Matthew Broderick movie "WarGames." ("Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail-Safe," both of which came out in 1964, two years before the Cheyenne Mountain command center opened, also famously depicted electronic war rooms.)
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the death knell for Cheyenne Mountain. A few years later, Russians were invited to Peterson in case the change of the millennium caused any catastrophic computer problems.
Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. The Northern Command was created in 2002 to defend the nation from internal attacks. Its headquarters were built at Peterson and NORAD's commander was put in charge of both.
It was from Peterson where the military was able to scramble fighter planes 10 minutes after a small plane crashed into a New York City high-rise last week.
Cheyenne Mountain was a comfort for many during the Cold War. It was put in the middle of the continent for safety reasons, to help ensure that key decisions on defending the nation from a nuclear attack could be made before it was too late.
Until the later years of the Cold War, when more accurate and high-yield bombs were developed, Cheyenne Mountain could probably have even withstood a direct hit.
"It was the place that made us feel good during the Cold War, especially after the Cuban missile crisis and the Russians had developed intercontinental ballistic missiles," said Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former National Security Agency director.
Keating said the new the control room, in contrast, could be damaged if a terrorist commandeered a jumbo jet and somehow knew exactly where to crash it. But "how unlikely is that? We think very," Keating said.
Keating said it costs about $250 million a year to operate Cheyenne Mountain fully staffed. Congress's Government Accountability Office has said efforts to modernize Cheyenne Mountain were too expensive or behind schedule.
Last year, the commander of long-range Russian military aviation visited the command center at Cheyenne Mountain. NORAD recently said it also would like to begin talks with the Russians about joint surveillance flights along the Alaska-Siberia frontier.
"The Russians have been up there," Keating said. "We've drank vodka at the Broadmoor (Hotel). We've sat here and discussed grave issues. Life goes on. It's OK."