Emergency Command Posts and the Continuity of Government

National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC) A militarized Boeing E-4B (converted from a commercial 747-200) based at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, and ready for take-off on 15 minutes' notice, is available to the president and vice president for commanding nuclear forces from the air during a crisis.1 At least one aircraft (there are four in all) is always on alert with a full battle staff. When the President travels around the country or overseas in Air Force One (the designation for one of several aircraft at the president's disposal in peacetime), a NAOC often flies to a nearby location.2 While colloquially known as the "doomsday plane," the official code name for NAOC is "Night Watch." Classified assessments during the cold war questioned whether the president or his designated successor could actually reach the aircraft in the event of a nuclear attack, let alone get off the ground in time. Once airborne, the specially shielded and configured plane would allow the president to coordinate a nuclear war with senior military commanders (each of whom has his own airborne command post) and, if necessary, transmit EAMs to launch a nuclear attack.3

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages should be considered historical.

Several command posts have been established for use in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Although plans initiated under President Jimmy Carter and fortified during the Reagan administration envisioned a protracted nuclear war lasting days or weeks, NAOC, like all the other airborne command posts, can only remain aloft for seventy-two hours at most (assuming in-flight refueling from KC-135 tankers also kept on alert), at which point its engine oil will begin to break down and require replacement. A growing concern following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens (whose ash drifted across much of the northern United States and forced the diversion of downwind commercial airline traffic) was that the large amounts of fallout generated by a Soviet attack on U.S. cities and military bases might clog the intakes of jet engines, further jeopardizing the survival of airborne command posts.4

Alternative Underground Command Posts Alternative underground command posts were built in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia (two), and West Virginia.

Site R/Alternate National Military Command Center (ANMCC): Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania. Blasted out of Raven Rock Mountain, about 6 miles (9.67 kilometers) north of Camp David on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, this underground bunker was built in around-the-clock shifts between 1950 and 1953 as a backup Pentagon and communications center should Washington, D.C., be destroyed. Site R's "footprint" is nearly 260,000 square feet (24,180 square meters); its total usable floor space is perhaps three times larger. Operated by nearby Fort Detrick, Site R's facilities are designed to handle 3,000 people and include sophisticated computer and communications equipment, a reservoir, medical and dental facilities, dining hall, barber shop, and chapel. Although twenty-four-hour staffing of the site ended in February 1992, by October 1997 more than 500 military and civilian personnel still worked at the facility.5 Construction costs are unknown but likely match or exceed the $1 billion spent on Mount Weather. According to the FYDP, from fiscal 1962 to 1992 (the last year funds were recorded as being expended), maintaining and operating the ANMCC cost more than $1 billion.

NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex (NCMC): Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Planned in the mid to late 1950s and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between June 1961 and May 1964, the NCMC ?dug out of Cheyenne Mountain — replaced NORAD's previous vulnerable aboveground facilities in a converted hospital at Ent Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colorado. The NCMC was designed to protect the headquarters of the North American early warning and control network (jointly operated by the U.S. and Canada) from nuclear attack. Its primary mission was to detect and assess a Soviet nuclear attack, notify senior military commanders, and coordinate the launching of retaliatory strikes before the first Soviet warheads detonated. Although shielded by 1,750 feet (533 meters) of granite, the NCMC became vulnerable to direct attack by Soviet missiles deployed in the late 1960s. Inside 4 1/2 acres (196,020 square feet; 18,212 square meters) of the mountain, some 115,000 bolts shore up the wall (two noncommissioned officers continually check and tighten these bolts to keep the walls from weakening and collapsing). Fifteen buildings rest atop more than 1,300 large metal springs (3.95 to 4 feet [1.2 meters] long, 3 inches [7.6 centimeters] thick, and 20 inches [50.8 centimeters] in diameter), designed to cushion the shock of nearby detonations. The entire installation is sealed off by 30-ton blast doors, 3 feet (0.9 meters) thick, that can be hydraulically closed in less than a minute. The cost of the project by the end of 1965 totaled some $695 million.6 At present, NORAD monitors data from early warning satellites and radars and tracks more than 8,000 objects in near-Earth orbit. Most of these objects (90 percent) are "space junk" consisting of paint chips, metal hardware, and other debris associated with past space missions. Using sophisticated radars and computers, NORAD monitors everything and reports potential hazards in order to avoid damage to orbiting satellites or the Space Shuttle.

Costs for the NCMC from 1962 through 1995 are listed in the FYDP under four program elements: 102310F "NCMC Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment" ($1.7 billion), 102311F NCMC "Space Defense Systems" ($3.0 billion), 305906F "NCMC Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment" ($875 million), and 305907F "NCMC Space Defense Systems" ($49 million), for a total of $5.6 billion over thirty-three years.

High Point Special Facility (SF)/Mount Weather: Berryville, Virginia. The Mount Weather site is an unacknowledged continuity of government (CoG) facility operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The 200,000-square-foot (18,600-square-meter) facility, with an estimated floor space of three times that amount, also houses FEMA's National Emergency Coordinating Center, which operates twenty-four hours a day, tracking worldwide disasters, both natural and manmade. Located on a 434-acre mountain site 48 miles (77 kilometers) (by air) from Washington, D.C., the surface complex includes about a dozen buildings staffed by more than 240 employees. The Bureau of Mines began constructing the facility's tunnels in 1954, which were completed by the Army Corps of Engineers under the code name "Operation High Point." Total construction costs, adjusted for inflation, are estimated to have exceeded $1 billion. Tunnel roofs are shored up with some 21,000 iron bolts driven eight to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) into the overhead rock. The entrance is protected by a guillotine gate and a 34-ton blast door that is 10 feet (3 meters) tall, 20 feet (6 meters) wide, and 5 feet (1.5 meters) thick and reportedly takes 10 to 15 minutes to open or close.

Completed in 1958, the underground bunker includes a hospital, crematorium, dining and recreation areas, sleeping quarters, reservoirs of drinking and cooling water, an emergency power plant, and a radio and television studio that is part of the Emergency Broadcasting System. From 1961 to 1970, the site was connected to the Bomb Alarm System, a network of sensors mounted on telephone poles adjacent to ninety-nine cities and military bases which would detect a nuclear detonation by its intense thermal flash and signal this event to Mount Weather and other military command posts, permitting both damage assessment and helping to confirm whether or not an attack had occurred. A large electronic map in a special room would indicate via tiny red light bulbs where explosions had occurred (this system was later replaced by more sophisticated space-based sensors).7 A series of side tunnels accommodates a total of twenty office buildings, some of which are three stories tall. Wth an on-site sewage treatment plant that can process 90,000 gallons (340,650 liters) a day and two 250,000-gallon (946,250-liter) aboveground storage tanks, the facility can support a population of 200 for up to 30 days. Although it is designed to accommodate several thousand people (with sleeping cots for 2,000), only the President, the Cabinet, and Supreme Court are provided private sleeping quarters.

For continuity of government purposes, senior officials are divided into Alpha, Bravo and Charlie teams: one would remain in Washington, another relocate to Mount Weather, and the third disperse to other relocation sites. Officials at Mount Weather track the location of everyone designated to succeed the president twenty-four hours a day. Designated evacuees carry special identification cards, and regular briefings and drills are conducted. Officials are not allowed to bring their families. The only full-scale activation of the facility came on November 9, 1965, during the great Northeastern power blackout.8 The 1974 crash of a TWA plane into the mountain, killing ninety-two people, brought the site to widespread public attention. Until May 1991, the site's underground weather station issued daily reports on potential fallout patterns.

From the mid-1950s until 1970, the 2857th Test Squadron, a special group of helicopter pilots and rescue workers based at Olmstead Air Force Base in Pennsylvania, and known as the Outpost Mission, was trained to fly to the White House in the event of nuclear attack, retrieve the president and first family, and relocate them to Mount Weather or several other sites, including (from 1961 to 1970) the National Emergency Command Post Afloat. If the team should have difficulty reaching the White House before an attack, it carried specialized equipment to break into the bunker underneath the executive mansion; a backup unit with heavier equipment, including cranes, was also available if the damage proved more severe.9

Mount Pony: Culpeper, Virginia. For nearly three decades, the Federal Reserve Board operated a 139,800-square-foot (13,001 square-meter) radiation hardened facility inside Mount Pony, just east of Culpeper, Virginia. Dedicated on December 10, 1969, the 400-foot-long (122-meter) bunker is built of steel-reinforced concrete 1 foot (0.3 meters) thick. Lead-lined shutters can be dropped to shield the windows of the semi-recessed facility, which is covered by 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) of dirt, and surrounded by barbed-wire fences and a guard post. The seven computers at the facility, operated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, were the central node for the transfer of all American electronic funds.

Until July 1992, the bunker, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C., also served as a facility for the continuity of government. With a peacetime staff of 100, the site was designed to support an emergency staff of 540 for thirty days, but only 200 beds were provided in the men's and women's dormitories, which would be shared on a "hot-bunk" basis by the staff, working around the clock. A pre-planned menu of freeze-dried foods for the first thirty days of occupation was stored on site; private wells would provide uncontaminated water following an attack. Other noteworthy features of the facility were a cold storage area for maintaining bodies that could not be promptly buried (owing to high radiation levels), an incinerator, indoor pistol range, and a helicopter landing pad. Until 1988, Mount Pony stored several billion dollars worth of currency, including a large number of $2 bills in its 23,500-square-foot (2,186-square0-meter) vault, shrink-wrapped and stacked on pallets 9 feet (2.7 meters) high. This money was to be used "to replenish currency supplies east of the Mississippi."10 In November 1997 Congress authorized the transfer of the facility from the Federal Reserve to the Library of Congress, which, using funds from a private foundation, will purchase and upgrade the site to house its extensive motion picture, television, and recorded sound collections.11

The Greenbrier (Casper): White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. From 1962 until its decommissioning on July 31, 1995, this CoG facility, code-named Casper (later Greek Island) was to house the U.S. Congress. It is located on the grounds of the prestigious Greenbrier resort.12 The 112,000-square-foot (10,416-meter) bunker is 64 feet (19.5 meters) beneath the West Virginia wing of the hotel and includes a complete medical clinic, a dining room (with wooden frames for false windows with country scenes painted on them), a television studio (to broadcast to the surviving citizenry), communications and cryptographic equipment, decontamination showers, and a "pathological waste incinerator" (otherwise known as a crematorium). Until 1992, the small staff maintaining the site — under the guise of television repair company — quietly tracked all prescription medication for each member of Congress and kept fresh supplies on hand in the event the facility was called into action.13

Construction of the site — which required 50,000 tons of concrete — began in 1959 and took two and a half years to complete. The steel-reinforced concrete walls of the bunker, which is 20 feet (6.1 meters) below ground, are 2 feet (0.6 meters) thick. The facility includes separate chambers for the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as a larger room for joint sessions. These are located in the "Exhibit Hall" of the West Virginia Wing, which includes vehicular and pedestrian entrances that can be quickly sealed by 20-ton blast doors. The site was designed to house about 1,000 people for two months, although plans called for commandeering the entire resort (capacity: 6,500 persons) in the event of an emergency. While the cost of maintaining the facility for more than 30 years is unknown, construction costs from 1959 to 1962 totaled some $86 million.14



Until 1983, this aircraft — then known as the National Emergency Airborne Command Post — was based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, a short helicopter ride from the White House. That year, in response to long-standing concerns about the vulnerability of the aircraft to an attack by Soviet SLBMs, the DOD assistant secretary responsible for C3I issues testified before Congress that NEACP would be moved inland to an undisclosed location where it could take off and rendezvous with the president, who would be evacuated from Washington by helicopter (maintained on alert at the Marine Corps Air Facility in Quantico, Virginia). The day after this testimony, Senator Dan Quayle (Republican of Indiana) surprised the DOD by issuing a press release announcing the stationing of NEACP at Grissom Air Force Base in Peru, Indiana (more than 50 miles [80.5 kilometers] north of Indianapolis). Quayle told reporters he had personally lobbied to have the aircraft transferred to Grissom to keep the base there open and to ensure that the surrounding community reaped the $4.6 million in extra spending generated by NEACP's presence. See Ford,

The Button,

pp. 136-137.


2 The first president to fly on NEACP was Jimmy Carter. The last was reportedly Ronald Reagan, who used it to travel from Texas to Washington, D.C. on November 15, 1981. [Back]

3 For a graphical depiction of NEACP and a general discussion of its capabilities, see Kenneth J. Stein, "America's Top-Secret Doomsday Plane," Popular Mechanics, May 1994, pp. 38-41. [Back]

4 Ford, The Button, p. 163. [Back]

5 From its creation, until October 1, 1997, Site R was operated by Fort Ritchie, Maryland. The impending closure of Fort Ritchie under a base realignment initiative necessitated the shirt to Fort Detrick. In 1992 Colonel Mark Scuerman, the site's commandant, proposed opening the facility for public tours, a plan rejected by DOD officials. See "Underground Pentagon Command to be Shifted," Baltimore Sun, April 29, 1996, p. 2B; Associated Press, "Secret Ceremony Seals Handover at Secret Site," Washington Times, October 13, 1997, p. A4. [Back]

6 David W. Shircliffe, NORAD's Underground COC, Initial Requirement to Initial Operation: 1956-1966, Historical Reference Paper 12, NORAD Public Affairs Office, January 1966 (classified, released with deletions under the Freedom of Information Act); U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha District), The Federal Engineer-Damsites to Missile Sites: A History of the Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha, Nebr., 1984), pp. 199-213. [Back]

7 This system was entirely dependent on commercial telephone and telegraph lines and was thus susceptible to power outages and other phenomena that limited its reliability. Although it helped in at least one instance (during the Cuban Missile Crisis) to confirm a false warning of missile attack by failing to signal a nuclear detonation, during the Northeast power blackout on November 9, 1965 the system's console at Mount Weather correctly noted the power outage at twenty-two sensor sites, but also reported that weapons had just exploded near Salt Lake City, Utah, and Charlotte, North Carolina. This condition triggered the full alert of the facility. It was only several days after the event that it was determined that the two detonation indications had been caused by faulty wiring in the console itself. Had such an error occurred during a time of international tension, the consequences could have far more serious. See Sagan, The Limits of Safety, pp. 130, 171, 183. [Back]

8 Ted Gup, "Doomsday Hideaway," Time, December 9, 1991, pp. 26-29. [Back]

9 Gup, "The Doomsday Blueprints," pp. 32-39. [Back]

10 Telephone conversation, Stephen I. Schwartz, with G.R. Schaar, vice president, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, December 31, 1997. After 1988, this money was dispersed to various Federal Reserve banks and passed into general circulation. Gold was also stored at the site for a time. Edward Zuckerman, The Day After World War III (New York, Viking Press, 1984) pp. 287-88; Gup, "The Doomsday Blueprints," p. 38; David C. Morrison, " And Not a Single Bang for Their Bucks," National Journal, August 13, 1994, pp. 1924-25. [Back]

11 Richard Tapscott, "In Virginia, a Fortress for a Film Collection," Washington Post, November 16, 1997, p. B3. [Back]

12 Following the removal by the government of certain classified equipment, the Greenbrier's owner, the CSX Corporation, began offering tours of the bunker in April 1996. [Back]

13 Jim Stewart, report on the CBS Evening News, December 17, 1995. [Back]

14 Ted Gup, "The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway," Washington Post Magazine, May 31, 1992, pp. 10-15, 24-27; Tom Curley, "Inside Look at Cold War Secret," USA Today, November 7, 1995, p. 10A. (Construction costs of $14 million then-year dollars cited in this article were confirmed by Ted J. Kleisner, president and managing director of the Greenbrier, e-mail communication, July 31, 1997.) [Back]

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