Cheyenne Mountain Complex

Andrew Summerville
March 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Cheyenne Mountain Complex (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the Cold War, all of the United States lived under the imminent threat of nuclear warfare. This required a great deal of planning to develop a secure location to house the North American Aerospace Defense Command center (NORAD). [1] NORAD would act as a strategic communication center to manage a nuclear war. In order to house NORAD, the military ordered the construction of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, located in Colorado. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex, as depicted in figure 1, was built by tunneling 2,000 feet into Cheyenne Mountain and constructing fortified buildings within. The primary purpose of this fortified structure hidden deep within the mountain was to protect against a direct nuclear blast. This secluded and fortified bunker would offer the military a place to strategize and disperse communications during a nuclear war.

Typical fallout shelter vs. Cheyenne Mountain Complex

Generally speaking, a nuclear fallout shelter is meant to protect individuals from exposure to harmful radiation. [2] During the height of the Cold War, many families constructed fallout shelters to protect themselves in case of an attack. Furthermore, these shelters were stocked with more than a month's worth of food and water. In contrast to typical fallout shelters, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex was primarily concerned with protecting against a direct nuclear blast, not nuclear fallout. Additionally, it was meant to be operational for much longer than a typical fallout shelter. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was meant to house, feed, and protect those charged with the task of maintaining communications during a nuclear war. The large, fortified buildings built deep within Cheyenne Mountain fall in stark contrast to the typical family fallout shelter built during the Cold War.

Fig. 2: Cutaway view of Cheyenne Mountain. [5] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Protection From Bombardment

Primarily, the engineers focused on protecting those inside the complex from air-raid attacks, ballistic missiles, and direct impacts from nuclear warheads. [3] In Fig. 2, a cutaway view of Cheyenne Mountain is shown to illustrate the great lengths engineers went to in order to ensure the safety of those inside the complex. The engineers wanted to ensure that NORAD could remain function even during an on-going nuclear attack. In order to achieve this high level of safety, the builders of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex elected to build the site 2,000 feet within the mountain. By placing the bunker well beneath ground those inside were at a decreased risk for harm from bombardment. To further fortify the bunker, the underground doors of the complex were made of solid steel, three feet thick, which weighed roughly twenty-five tons. The effort the engineers went to in order to ensure the safety and security of communications during a nuclear attack speaks volumes about the fear of such an event occurring during the Cold War.


While the primary function of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex was to protect from a direct nuclear attack, it was also equipped to clean individuals who had been exposed to nuclear fallout. For precautionary purposes, all those entering the facility would have been cleaned in order to preserve an environment free of radioactive particles and other chemical weapons. In the face of chemical or nuclear warfare, decontamination is pivotal in mitigating the harmful effects of the chemicals or radiation. [4] During a nuclear attack, upon entering the blast doors of the complex, service members would have received a chemical scrub down before proceeding into the command center. Additionally, the complex was equipped with high-tech ventilation systems to protect those inside from exposure to radioactive fallout. [2] To reiterate, protecting against chemical weapons and nuclear fallout was not the Cheyenne Mountain Complex's primary purpose; however, sufficient technology was included to protect those inside from the effects of nuclear fallout and chemical weaponry.


In order to allow NORAD to continue operating in the midst of a nuclear attack, it was necessary to construct an ultra-fortified shelter called the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. This engineering marvel could ventilate air so as to eliminate radioactive particles, decontaminate visitors, and also withstand direct blasts from nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction. With this level of protection, service members would be able to continue managing an on-going nuclear war, unaffected by what was going on outside the fortified complex.

© Andrew Summerville. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. R. Hoots and R. L. Roehrich, "Models for Propagation of NORAD Element Sets," United States Air Force, Spacetrack Report No. 3, December 1980.

[2] D. Monteyne, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War (U of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[3] S. Fetter, "Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction: What Is the Threat? What Should Be Done?" Int. Security 16, No. 1, 5 (Summer 1991).

[4] Y. C. Yang, "Decontamination of Chemical Warfare Agents," Chem. Rev. 92, 1729 (1992).

[5] J. B. Lihani, NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain AFS (Arcadia Publishing, 2012).