Assignment #1 - When I became deputy commander of the 721st

Question # 00852396 Posted By: wildcraft Updated on: 03/27/2024 12:10 AM Due on: 03/27/2024
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Business Finance - Operations Management Short Writing Assignment

Cheyenne Mountain Fuel Storage Tank Episode

Related by Greg Keethler

Deputy Commander, 721st Space Group (at the time)

Short Writing Assignment #1

When I became deputy commander of the 721st Space Group at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in the early 90’s, I was provided briefings by each subordinate squadron on its mission and associated major activities, projects, issues, concerns, etc. Among other things, the Civil Engineering Squadron briefed a military construction project valued at about $5 million (as I recall) to completely rebuild the fuel storage tank in the underground complex. This immediately struck me as a questionable undertaking, so I began to ask questions about it.

Background: The timeframe was the early 90’s and the Cold War had just ended. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was (and is) a facility consisting of fifteen three-story buildings 1700 feet under the peak of Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was built in the 1960’s as an emergency 24/7 project when it was determined that the Soviets had attained enough accuracy in their missiles to threaten above ground facilities. It has hosted a variety of missions, the most famous of which was the NORAD Command Center, which was responsible at all times for determining whether the United States and/or Canada were under missile or air attack. The 721st Space Group operated and maintained all the communication and computer systems in the complex as well as all of the facilities (buildings, utilities, survival systems, etc), and provided the security for the entire facility. In the event of a nuclear attack, the facility was designed to “button up” for 30 days behind two 25 ton blast doors. As such, it had its own drinking water supply, its own power plant, a stockpile of food, and the capability to pull fresh air from outside through radiological and biological filters. The power plant consisted of six generators, each driven by a large diesel ship engine that consumed about 100 gallons of diesel fuel per hour; two of the generators could operate the “mission load” of the facility and a sufficient number of lights for safety purposes. For button up purposes, there needed to be a stockpile of diesel fuel, which was, in fact, a cavern dug into the mountain, with a capacity of about 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel. There was a steel barrier in front of the cavern to control fumes and keep contamination out of the fuel.

If the key systems in the complex went down and precluded maintaining attack vigilance, the President would be notified after a classified number of minutes that the nation was “blind.” We tried very hard every day to keep that from happening, and maintaining power to the mission equipment was central to that effort.

The fuel tank overhaul project consisted of installing some large fuel storage tanks outside the rear entrance to the main tunnel and running a pipeline from there back into the tunnel and down to the power plant (something approaching ¾ of a mile) so the engines could have the needed fuel. The existing cavern would then be cleaned and lined with concrete, and stainless steel tanks would be installed in the same space to serve as the fuel storage capacity of the complex. The project would take between 18 months and two years, and during that time, it would not be possible to button up. The project had been in the works for several years; as a military construction project, it received extreme scrutiny from every level of command up through Air Force Headquarters, then the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and, ultimately, the Military Construction Committees of both houses of Congress, as well as the full Congress itself. An immense amount of effort had gone into getting the project approved and funded, and it was slated to start in the next fiscal year. The engineers were quite excited about it—it was the most massive project they had undertaken in many years, and they thrived on doing projects. (There is a video on Blackboard with pictures of the facility to help you visualize).

I asked for a meeting with the Civil Engineering Squadron Commander and the appropriate staff members with responsibility for the project. At the meeting, I asked why we were doing the project. The answer I got was that it was a requirement of a Federal Law that had been enacted some years earlier regarding underground fuel storage tanks. The law was aimed at storage tanks at filling stations, which were nearly all single-walled at the time. It had been found that single-walled tanks were susceptible to corrosion and could leak fuel into the surrounding soil and create a significant pollution problem. Readers who are old enough may remember a period of time in the 80’s and 90’s wherein all such tanks were dug up at filling stations and replaced with double-walled tanks. The engineers said that the Cheyenne Mountain tank got caught up in the law because it was an underground fuel storage tank, so that was the impetus for the project.

I asked to see the law, and when I read it, my take was that the law was not applicable to the Cheyenne Mountain fuel storage tank. I then asked if anyone had gotten an interpretation from the EPA as to whether the law required replacement of the Cheyenne Mountain tank. The answer was that the question had been asked multiple times, but the EPA never provided an answer. I questioned that as the basis for proceeding with the project, the response to which was that the engineers had gone to the Colorado version of the EPA, which “thought” it needed to be done. I asked the engineers to meet again with the Colorado EPA and find out why they were concerned about it and if there was anything else we could to do mitigate their concerns. At the meeting, they learned that the Colorado EPA feared hydrocarbons from the fuel would find their way into the groundwater surrounding the tank and thereby pollute it. The two groups came up with a procedure to drill a small hole in the form of a spiral underneath the tank and then sample (and test) the water in the hole three times a day for six months, which the engineers carried out.

When the six months were up, the engineers came to me with the results. There had not been a single trace of hydrocarbons found in any of the samples. The reason, they said, was that the cavern was 1700 feet underground, so the pressure exerted by the groundwater was far greater than that exerted by the fuel in the tank. The result was that groundwater constantly infiltrated the tank, and we had to actually use a centrifuge to separate the water from the fuel before sending it to the generators. The Colorado EPA said their concerns were satisfied by the tests and no longer felt the project was necessary. The engineers recommended proceeding with the project anyway because it would result in an improved fuel storage capability and we would no longer have to centrifuge the fuel.

I informed the Group Commander of all of this and told him I recommended cancelling the project—not only was it not required, but it would provide a massive disruption to daily operations and prevent us from being able to button up for almost two years. The marginal improvements in fuel storage capability did not justify the cost and disruption. He agreed, so I met with the engineers again and informed them the project was cancelled and the reasons why. They informed me that the project could not be cancelled because it was a military construction project that had been approved by Congress—it was in the LAW. I quickly defused that argument (I had served as a legislative liaison officer and knew how all that worked). They then argued that we should retain the project because if we cancelled it, we wouldn’t get to keep the money. In fact, not even the Air Force nor the Department of Defense would get to keep the money, they said—it would just go back into the Treasury. I asked what was wrong with that, and I got silence and resentful stares in return.

For the rest of my tour at Cheyenne Mountain, the Civil Engineers resented that I had interfered in their prized project and, in their view, took it away from them. I pointed out that all I had done was ask questions and make the obviously right recommendation when those questions were answered. It didn’t matter—they begrudged me for it. If I had just left things alone, they felt, everything would have been fine.

Compare this story to the story related by John Maxwell in “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” Chapters 4 (The Law of Navigation) and 14 (The Law of Buy-in), about his vision to cancel an activity center project at his church (which 65% of the members had approved) and replace it with a project for a new auditorium. Although he tells the story a little differently in the two chapters, the essence is that he had the “right” vision (i.e., navigation) and he smoothly worked to get buy-in to his project by stalling the activity center project while he sold the congregation on the auditorium. Per his account, he was very successful—the congregation abandoned the activity center and approved the auditorium with a 98% favorable vote. In both cases, the leader’s vision was realized. In one case, the leader was lauded and loved, in the other, the leader was resented.


Address the following four questions in a four page paper (1000-1100 words). Note: you don’t have to address each question separately, as long as you adequately address it as part of the discussion.

1. What are the similarities in these two scenarios from a leadership standpoint? What are important differences, if any?

2. What are the ethics implications of the two approaches taken by these leaders, if any?

3. What might have been done in the Cheyenne Mountain scenario to get more buy-in from the engineers to cancelling the project?

4. Compare and contrast the leadership methods used by the two leaders in these examples, using material from Lincoln, Northouse and the Maxwell texts to support your points.

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