DOD IG: U.S. Space Command Basing Decision Complied with Law and Policy

DOD IG: U.S. Space Command Basing Decision Complied with Law and Policy

DOD’s Inspector General has released the long-awaited results of its investigation into how the decision was made to base U.S. Space Command in Huntsville, AL. Allegations have been swirling that President Trump awarded it to Alabama as a political favor. The IG concluded the process complied with law and policy, but the sections of the report describing what happened in the meeting with Trump days before the end of his term are heavily redacted, so the public record does not answer that question.

President Trump reestablished U.S. Space Command in August 2019. The original U.S. Space Command, created in 1985, was abolished in 2002 after a reorganization of the Unified Combatant Commands following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Now there are 11 Unified Combatant Commands, the warfighting components of the U.S. military.

States are eager to win new military bases and the jobs and prestige that come with them. In May 2019, anticipating its establishment, the Air Force announced six possible locations for Space Command headquarters, four in Colorado and one each in California and Alabama. Several states protested and the competition was reopened in May 2020. On November 19, 2020, the Air Force announced a new list of six more geographically diverse candidates from the 24 states that applied:

  • Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico
  • Offutt AFB, Nebraska
  • Patrick AFB, Florida
  • Peterson AFB, Colorado
  • Port San Antonio, Texas, and
  • Redstone Army Airfield (or Redstone Arsenal),  Alabama

On January 13, 2021, seven days before the end of the Trump Administration, then-Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett announced that Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL was the choice.

It was a surprise. Colorado was assumed to be the front-runner because it has several military space installations there already and is home to the Space Command’s temporary headquarters at Peterson Space Force Base. Florida was thought to be in second place because it also has a sizable military space footprint at Patrick Space Force Base near Cape Canaveral.

The bipartisan Colorado congressional delegation cried foul and called for an investigation soon after President Biden took office. The DOD IG and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) both started studies. GAO’s is still pending.[Update, May 13: GAO released its report today, but it is “restricted” and unavailable to the public. Restricted Report: U.S. Space Command: Air Force Should Develop Guidance for Strengthening Future Basing Decisions GAO-22-105099SU, May 13. GAO tells that it is working on a public version that could be out “in the next few weeks.”]

In a report dated today, the DOD IG found the process Air Force officials used “complied with law and policy, and was reasonable in identifying Huntsville as the preferred permanent location.”

However, it also found there is no DOD-wide policy for basing combatant commands. Instead, the Air Force officials complied with direction from the Secretary of Defense (SecDef), Mark Esper at the time. The IG report quotes him as telling the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 4, 2020 that he was the responsible party for the basing decision.

Quote in DOD IG report attributed to the Secretary of Defense before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 4, 2020. Mark Esper was SecDef from July 2019-November 2020.

That is the guidance the IG determined was followed. The IG recommended the SecDef, now Lloyd Austin III,  establish a department-wide policy for combatant command basing decisions, but in his response (published as an appendix) he disagreed saying each Combatant Command’s Support Agent (CCSA) — in this case the Air Force — has its own existing policies to follow.

A key issue for those opposing the choice of Huntsville was the allegation that President Trump overruled the recommendation presented to him, reportedly Colorado, and awarded it to Alabama as a political favor during a meeting at the White House on January 11, 2021.

The sections of the IG’s report describing that meeting are redacted, so there is no way to know from the public record what transpired there.

The IG does report that the Air Force originally planned to present the results to Trump as a Color Chart, but the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. John Hyten) recommended the Air Force instead “develop a narrative-based document,” the Decision Matrix. The Color Chart ranked the six potential locations based on four criteria approved by the SecDef: mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to DOD. The Decision Matrix added a fifth: “mission impacts to FOC” or Full Operational Capability.

The IG agreed that adding the fifth decision factor was “reasonable,” but found that when reformulating the Color Chart into the Decision Matrix, two ratings were inconsistent. Exactly what those factors were is redacted, but both favored Colorado Springs and the IG concluded they were “not supportable.”

Therefore, the ranking of Colorado Springs, Colorado, as the preferred permanent location to host the USSPACECOM HQ in the January 10, 2021 Decision Matrix was not supportable.

The day after the meeting with Trump, Secretary of the Air Force Barrett signed an Action Memorandum choosing Huntsville and “Basing Office personnel made two revisions to the Decison Matrix.”

Excerpt from the DOD IG report.

Those with access to the unredacted report may have their questions answered, but the public record remains unclear about President Trump’s role in choosing Huntsville.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) said in a statement that he will continue “to advocate for a fair and transparent basing decision” and asserted the GAO report “did a much deeper review” while this was “only a cursory review of the process itself.”

Colorado’s two Senators, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, said in a joint statement they still are reviewing the findings. “Our position remains that the previous administration used a basing process for U.S. Space Command that was untested, lacked transparency, and neglected critical national security and cost considerations.”

By contrast, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), praised the report. “The bottom line of the report is that the Air Force’s process which led to the selection of Redstone as the best home for SPACECOM was rock solid.”

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