GAO Report Continues USPACECOM HQ Saga

GAO Report Continues USPACECOM HQ Saga

The Government Accountabilty Office released its full report today assessing whether the Air Force followed proper procedures in choosing the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL as the preferred location for U.S. Space Command headquarters. Colorado politicians and many in the national security space community want it to remain in Colorado Springs and believe the selection of Alabama was a political gift by former President Trump in the closing days of his presidency. GAO does not resolve that question because details on what transpired in the White House are classified, but it adds more to the public record on what did happen.

Like the report from the DOD Inspector General last month, the GAO report does not explicitly explain Trump’s direct involvement, which centered on a January 11, 2021 meeting in the White House days before his term ended. The content of those conversations was determined to be classified so neither the DOD IG nor GAO could disclose who said what.

The full report released by GAO today had to clear a classification review, which is why it became public only now, not when it was initially submitted to Congress on May 13, two days after the heavily redacted DOD IG report.

GAO listed the types of content it had to remove in order to make the report public including “deliberations before a January 11, 2021, meeting at the White House involving high-ranking officials” and “the Air Force’s rationale for selecting Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location for U.S. Space Command headquarters.”

Then-Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett nominally held decision-making authority for this basing decision, but the GAO reported there was no consensus among the people they interviewed who were at the meeting as to who made the decision that day.

Although the Air Force documented the general rationale for selecting
Redstone Arsenal in an action memorandum and accompanying
documents,39 there was not consensus among the officials we
interviewed regarding who ultimately made the decision to name
Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location for U.S. Space Command
headquarters, including the role of the then President in making the
decision. For example, one former official stated that the then Acting
Secretary of Defense made the decision, with agreement from the
President and other senior officials. A second former official told us that
more clarity on who had authority to make the decision would have been
helpful, but that it seemed the authority to make the decision remained
with the Secretary of the Air Force and was not retracted by the
President. Air Force Strategic Basing Office officials stated that the then
Secretary of the Air Force retained the authority to make the decision on
the preferred location, and that she made that decision on January 12,
2021, as indicated in the action memorandum. — GAO

It was Barrett who announced the decision on January 12, however.

Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was one of six locations that rose to the top in a second round of decision-making ordered by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in 2020 after criticism of an initial attempt. The others are:

  • Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO, USSPACECOM’s temporary headquarters now;
  • Patrick Space Force Base, FL;
  • Joint Base San Antonio, TX;
  • Kirtland Air Force Base, NM; and
  • Offut Air Force Base, NE were the others.

Both the DOD IG and GAO reported that prior to the meeting at the White House, Huntsville was the top ranked choice using the Air Force basing criteria, but shortly before the meeting changes were made that favored Colorado Springs.

The DOD IG said they added a new factor — how long the facility would take to reach full operational capability. The DOD IG agreed adding that criterion was “reasonable,” but other changes made at the last minute resulted in two ratings favoring Colorado Springs that were “not supportable.”

GAO explained that U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command leaders had informed the Air Force they could reduce personnel at Peterson so a new building would not have to be built. That would allow them to reach full operational capability sooner. But the Air Force said it did not receive documentation to support the personnel reductions.

Overall, the DOD IG concluded the decision complied with law and policy.

GAO’s task was not to assess whether the Air Force complied with law or regulations, but whether it followed its own process correctly and how that process compares to the Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) method GAO uses when it analyzes DOD programs.

The upshot is that GAO concluded the Air Force made modifications to its own procedures at Esper’s direction. The changes included adding a nomination phase where all 50 states could apply, relying on a unique set of senior level reviewers including the Secretary of the Air Force and the Secretary of Defense, waiting to collect information for environmental reviews of the potential locations, and getting direct input from the then-President (Trump), then-Acting Secretary of Defense (Christopher Miller) and then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. John Hyten).

Comparing that process to the AOA method, GAO concluded it fully or substantially met only seven of 21 best practices “leaving shorfalls in its transparency and credibility.”

GAO recommended that the Air Force adopt the AOA method for basing decisions going forward.

In a written response published in the report, Edwin Oshiba, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Energy, Installations and Environment, stressed that the Air Force complied with the federal law that governs basing decisions, but will incorporate elements of GAO’s AOA method “into select basing decisions in the future.”

Oshiba also pointed out that no decision has yet been made on where to locate USSPACECOM. Huntsville is the “preferred location” of the six, but environmental reviews are not completed.

“The next step in the process is for the Department [of the Air Force] to proceed with an environmental assessment using the best available data which analyzes all six reasonable locations. As part of that process, there will be an opportunity for public review.” — Edwin Oshiba

At a May 13 hearing before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said he wants to move forward as soon as possible. After the environmental assessment and public comment period there will be a “look at some other considerations” before finalizing the decision, but he was hopeful for a final decision “in the next several months.”

GAO wrote the report at the request of Reps. Mike Waltz (R-FL) and Doug Lamborn (R-CO), and Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and John Hickenlooper (D-CO).

Hickenlooper, Bennet, Lamborn and Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) issued a joint statement today reiterating the view that USSPACECOM should remain at Peterson Space Force Base because it can reach full operational capability more quickly than if it has to move.

“With the investigations now complete, the shortcomings of the Space Command basing process are fully available to the Biden Administration. We urge them to review the reports’ findings, and make a decision in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that prioritizes our national security and mission in space.

“The American people must be able to trust that this decision is objective and provides for our national security and leadership in space. Peterson remains the only and best home for U.S. Space Command.” — Joint Statement

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) tweeted a link to his statement from May 13 when the initial GAO results were made public that the process was “rock solid.”

U.S. Space Command is one of the 11 Unified Combatant Commands that conduct warfighting and report to the Secretary of Defense. Gen. James Dickinson is Commander of USSPACECOM. It is often confused with the U.S. Space Force, one of the six military services that is part of the Department of the Air Force. U.S. Space Force is headquartered at the Pentagon along with the other military services. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond is U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations.

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