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Inside NORAD & Northcom: 'We Stand Ready To Protect America 24/7/365'

By Rick Sallinger

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) - The threat of a missile attack from North Korea against the United States is heating up in terms of rhetoric and backed up by repeated test launches.

So far it is not believed that North Korea has the capability of striking the U.S. mainland, but it is moving towards that goal. Much closer to North Korea are South Korea, Japan and U.S. territories in the Pacific.

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(credit: CBS)

The job to thwart such an attack falls largely to those based in Colorado who CBS4 investigator Rick Sallinger was granted a visit.

Beneath the ground at Peterson Air Force Base Colorado Springs is the operations center for NORAD and Northcom.

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CBS4's Rick Sallinger with Col. David Hanson (credit: CBS)

Colonel David Hanson is one of those who runs the Command Center.

"We protect the  homeland from here," he said.

CBS4 got a rare look at just  how the US that protection is taking place.

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(credit: CBS)

On the wall they monitor air traffic for internal threats. Monitors show air traffic over Washington and where ever the President may be.

From abroad, the eyes are on North Korea.

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Kim Jong-un (credit: CBS)

Right here in Colorado the focus of this U.S./Canadian operation is to detect and track when the rogue nation fires a missile.

Colonel Hanson spoke of the intelligence watch, "They find out what's going on around the world, what's making us nervous," he said.

These days there is plenty to be nervous about.

Lt. Colonel Tim Schwamb of NORAD acknowledged "Colorado plays a very important role in the world of missile warning."

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Lt. Col. Tim Schwamb (credit: CBS)

If NORAD detects a launched missile threatening the U.S. or its troops abroad, the next step goes to the Northern Command right here for possible interception.

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North Korean missile launch (credit: CBS)

That is done by launching an anti-ballistic missile. At a closing speed of 36,000 miles per hour it must strike the incoming projectile in space before it can reach its target.

NORTHCOM Deputy Steve Allen used an analogy to describe how it works, "We liken it to hitting a bullet to a bullet."

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Steve Allen (credit: CBS)

He describes the success like using a sniper weapon to take strike a bullet thousands of miles away.

CBS4's Sallinger asked, "Do you feel confident we can shoot down a North Korean missile?"

"Oh very confident," he replied

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U.S. anit-ballistic missile launch (credit: CBS)

In a significant test this past May the system successfully knocked out a mock nuclear armed missile launched from the Pacific.

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Missile animation (credit: NORAD / Northcomm)
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Missile animation (credit: NORAD / Northcomm)
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Missile animation (credit: NORAD / Northcomm)

"There was quite the applause quite a lot of cheering going on," Allen recalled.

And no doubt also inside Cheyenne Mountain now used as a backup. The main command center was moved to Peterson several years ago for reasons of convenience, space, and the changing nature of the threat.

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(credit: CBS)

North Korea's boast about being able put a nuclear warhead on a missile to hit the United States is being taken very seriously.

As Colonel Schwamb put it, "We stand ready to protect America 24/7/365."

For the sake of the future there is no room for error.

CBS4's Rick Sallinger is a Peabody award winning reporter who has been with the station more than two decades doing hard news and investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter @ricksallinger.


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