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Inside the mountain base still on alert to North Korea's missile threat

A lot has changed on the Korean peninsula in just matter of months -- threats of fire and fury have been replaced wit...

Posted: May 12, 2018 1:47 PM
Updated: May 12, 2018 1:47 PM

A lot has changed on the Korean peninsula in just matter of months -- threats of fire and fury have been replaced with handshakes and optimism -- but for the military organization that monitors threats to North America, it might as well be 2017 when it comes to North Korea.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the joint Canada-US organization tasked with warning of incoming threats from the sky, continues to monitor North Korea's nuclear program with the same intensity it did at the height of North Korea's missile testing. In fact, NORAD and US Northern Command Center Director Col. Travis Morehen, a Canadian, says the organization still gets three or four intelligence reports on the country's nuclear program every day.

"We've been watching the same as we were previously, the same as we watch any other nation that poses a threat to the United States and Canada," he said.

Morehen has been "standing watch" at the helm of the NORAD command center during five North Korean missile tests and says it's not the political rhetoric that shapes their decision-making, it's what he calls the "hard intelligence."

"We have a job to do that's measured in minutes and seconds and for us to try and account for the political rhetoric, it doesn't fit in. We're worried about pieces of metal flying through space coming to North America," he said.

CNN was granted rare access to NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs to mark the organization's 60th anniversary. The complex houses NORAD's alternate command center, located nearly a mile inside the mountain and buried under 2,400 feet of solid granite.

The primary command center is located at nearby Peterson Air Force base, but in the event of a serious real-life nuclear threat, the operation would shift to Cheyenne Mountain, and for good reason. It's secured by two massive 23-ton blast doors, completely sealing it off from the outside world to survive a nuclear strike, or maintain communications after an electromagnetic pulse attack. Outside of training, those doors have sealed shut only once before: September 11, 2001.

The 15 buildings inside are built on 1,300 giant springs built to allow them to bounce in the event of a nuclear strike or earthquake. And inside the command center, there is enough powerful technology to detect a missile launch anywhere on the globe within seconds.

"We like to say it's the most secure facility in the world," said Steven Rose, the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station deputy director.

Originally built during the Cold War to defend against Soviet bombers, it's now used to detect the latest missile launches abroad, and monitor potential threats to domestic air traffic. It is also equipped to detect marine threats like the movement of military submarines. If a Chinese or Russian sub were headed to North America, it's NORAD's job to know.

If North Korea launches a missile, the roughly 30 people inside the command post are trained to react within seconds -- determining whether the missile could reach North America, and if so, notifying Washington and Ottawa so decisions can be made about a potential response.

President Donald Trump is no longer calling Kim "Little Rocket Man," and Kim is no longer calling Trump "mentally deranged." Instead, Trump has found a new foe when it comes to nuclear threats: Iran. Since the President announced the United States would pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the country's President Hassan Rouhani has yet to fully commit to staying in the deal -- meaning the world could soon have a second aspiring nuclear power.

But that hasn't changed the calculus much inside the NORAD command post. Morehen says intelligence coming out of Iran doesn't always match the nation's fiery political rhetoric -- not to mention that fact that Iran has yet to demonstrate the capability to strike North America.

"We try not to look really hard at what is being said in the news. It's rhetoric. So once again we focus on the hard movement of capabilities, the deployment of missiles, the deployment of submarines and bombers," he said.

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