RAVEN ROCK, Pa. -- The nation's military chiefs, no longer fearing that a nuclear Armageddon may be close at hand, have quietly lifted the round-the-clock alert ordered almost 40 years ago at Site R, a secret U.S. command fortress buried a half-mile inside this mountain near the Maryland line.
Within the site -- a sprawling, self-contained complex of five three-story office buildings, generators, reservoirs and even a barber shop and fitness center -- facilities that always stayed open in case of a surprise Soviet nuclear attack are finally closing down at night.
"A lot of people have been dispersed, reassigned, and the place is going down to a caretaker status," said a knowledgeable senior military officer at the Pentagon. "It's no longer a 24-hour-a-day operation. People go home at the end of the workday."
This adjustment to the post-Cold War world began Feb. 1, the latest in a series of unpublicized changes by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the operation of the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon and the main backup site here, some 75 miles away in the Catoctin Mountain range.
The two facilities always ran parallel operations, with the Site R
"watch teams" acting like clones of their Pentagon counterparts. "If anything hiccuped, they were supposed to be in step, following everything," said the senior officer, who would only discuss classified operations if assured of anonymity.
"Basically, we don't maintain the teams [at Site R] anymore. There's enough warning time that we could dispatch one of our teams from here," he said from his Pentagon office.
At Raven Rock, which contains both the Alternate Joint Communications Center and the Alternate National Military Command Center, the "emergency action area" is now occupied by a skeleton crew assigned to keep the computers and communications equipment warm.
Key Pentagon personnel, usually led by a one-star general, still visit at least once every three months to simulate operations during a nuclear or conventional war. But Site R is clearly busier now as a hub in the military's worldwide communications network, handling both routine and emergency messages, than rTC as the potential nerve center for wartime operations.
"For me as the commander, there has been no decrease in my mission. I still have a responsibility to support fully all of the tenants," said Lt. Col. Arthur Maxwell, leader of the Army's 1111th Signal Battalion, based six miles southwest of Site R at Fort Ritchie, near Cascade, Md. In his view, the site cannot be expected to function properly if it sits dormant, waiting to be cranked up only in a crisis.
Known as the "mayor of Raven Rock," Colonel Maxwell manages the subterranean command post, a task that ranges from seeing to the servicing of high-tech computer, video and communications gear to making sure the dining room has enough of its "surf 'n' turf" dinner special.
He insisted there's enough work at Site R to keep some people there more than a week, requiring a barber to make weekly trips into the mountain to meet the demand for haircuts. Military lawyers are even dispatched occasionally to handle wills and dispense legal advice for those who don't have time to leave the mountain, he said.
Visitors have always been barred, although motorists can get a glimpse of a helipad and the tunnel entrances from a distance. There are warning signs to keep out and a cryptic notice posted on the west gate that says "The Alternate Joint Communications Center (Site R)" and identifies the military police unit in charge of security.
"This place has been in a shroud of secrecy," said Colonel Maxwell, adding that the mystery surrounding Site R has fueled rumors that it is a nuclear missile launch site or that it is connected by underground tunnel to Camp David, the presidential retreat less than 12 miles to the south near Thurmont, Md.
Neither report is true, he said.
In an interview, the colonel offered new, recently declassified details about the operation, occasionally consulting Glen Stiles, the facility's security chief, over how much he could disclose. Other information was obtained from unclassified documents and Washington-based officials, none of whom agreed to be identified.
Planning for the 716-acre underground complex dates back to 1949, when the Soviet Union's first successful nuclear test prompted President Harry S. Truman to back the idea of an alternative command center. The military also developed doomsday scenarios that assumed the Pentagon would be targeted in a nuclear attack, requiring the president, defense secretary and military chiefs to go elsewhere to receive timely intelligence and issue necessary orders.
In military jargon, the Pentagon war room, an above-ground facility with backup power and life-support equipment, is a "soft" target because there has been no attempt to harden it against a direct nuclear strike.
Site R was built deep inside Raven Rock, which is composed of greenstone, a form of granite thought to be the fourth hardest rock in the world. The five buildings at the site are separated by thick rock walls because each was erected inside its own mountain cavern.
This may have assured adequate protection in the 1960s, but the military informed Congress in 1973 that the accuracy and explosive power of the latest Soviet missiles made Site R obsolete as a "survivable" command post. The last attempt to fortify it occurred in 1961.
Nonetheless, Site R remains the nation's second most important land-based command facility after the Pentagon. Colorado's North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) base is hardened but cannot withstand a dedicated attack. The Strategic Air Command's underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., is not considered hardened. And at three regional U.S. commands -- in Honolulu; Norfolk, Va.; and Stuttgart, Germany -- command posts there are above ground and vulnerable.
If there is anything more survivable than Site R, it is the so-called E-4B Doomsday Plane or Flying White House, a modified Boeing 747 that can receive the same warning and intelligence data and maintain the same communications links as Site R and the Pentagon war room. Still on 24-hour ground alert at Grissom Air Force Base, Ind., the plane can be scrambled and "prestaged" as needed for the president and his staff in the event of a crisis.
The military's continued reliance on Site R may be explained by its proximity to Washington and Fort Ritchie, home of the Army's 7th Signal Command, where housing and electronic engineering services are available, Colonel Maxwell said.
More importantly, the site has a relatively small budget, he said. He refused to discuss actual figures, which are classified.
His own battalion's annual spending has fallen to $3 million to $4 million, he said.
"It's always been an austere command facility," the colonel said.
In a move that would demystify Site R and possibly build support for his own budget, Colonel Maxwell said a public relations plan will be implemented soon to allow reporters and community leaders to tour the facility for the first time since Site R became operational in 1954.