Kendall: No News on Space Command Headquarters

Kendall: No News on Space Command Headquarters

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was peppered with questions from two congressional committees about when a decision will be made on where to locate the headquarters of U.S. Space Command, but he said he has no news to share. The prickly issue pitting Colorado versus Alabama has been on hold for over two years. One powerful House member from Alabama said “we’re beyond the point of frustration,” but Kendall adroitly avoided making any promises about a resolution.

Former President Trump reestablished U.S. Space Command in August 2019. USSPACECOM is one of the 11 Unified Combatant Commands and is in charge of space warfighting. Army General James Dickinson is Commander.

USSPACECOM is different from the U.S. Space Force. USSF is one of the six military services that organize, train, and equip personnel who are assigned to the Unified Combatant Commands to fight wars. USSF is part of the Department of the Air Force, headquartered at the Pentagon.

USSPACECOM is temporarily headquartered at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO. The city is home to a number of other military space facilities including Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station and Schriever Space Force Base, as well as the Air Force Academy.

Colorado wants to keep it there.

In January 2021, days before he left office, Trump decided to move it to Huntsville, AL. Critics say that was to reward Alabama politicians for their strong support, but advocates insist it was in accordance with an Air Force basing review and signed off by then-Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett.

The Colorado delegation immediately wrote to President-elect Joe Biden asking him to reconsider the matter once he took office.

Charges have flown back and forth ever since. The DOD Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office both investigated. The DOD IG ultimately concluded the decision complied with law and policy. GAO’s task was to determine whether the Air Force complied with its own procedures and concluded those procedures had “shortfalls” in transparency and credibility.

Colorado Springs historically has been the center of military space facilities, but Huntsville also has a major space presence. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is there as is the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC).

Gen. Dickinson headed SMDC before taking on leadership of USSPACECOM. He’s also a native of Estes Park, CO, so knows both areas well and has been steadfastly neutral in the matter. He did say at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium last month — in Colorado Springs — that USSPACECOM will reach Full Operational Capability (FOC) in its current location “later this year,” earlier than originally forecast.

The Colorado delegation focuses a lot on how moving USSPACECOM anywhere would be disruptive to reaching FOC.

The Secretary of the Air Force is the person who officially makes the decision. Kendall has been asked about it at several congressional hearings including the House and Senate Armed Services (HASC and SASC) hearings on the Department of the Air Force’s FY2024 budget request.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) chairs a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of the Air Force FY2024 budget request, April 27, 2023. Screengrab.

At the April 27 HASC hearing, full committee chairman Mike Rogers (R) from Alabama opened the hearing by expressing frustration at how long it’s taking for a final decision.

“We’re beyond frustration with the continued delay in announcing the final decision of SPACECOM basing.  27 months ago the Air Force made the right decision to go with Huntsville, Alabama. 12 months ago the GAO and the DOD Inspector General affirmed that decision. There is only one state still protesting and that state came in fifth in the competition.  The political games must end. Your continued hand-wringing is delaying SPACECOM’s full operational capability and undermining our ability to defend this nation. You need to end this charade and make that announcement.” — Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)

But he did not directly ask Kendall when a decision would be made. Nor did two other Alabama representatives, Dale Strong (R) and Terri Sewell (D), who both made statements, but avoided a confrontation. Strong spoke at length, showing slides supporting his position that Colorado not only wasn’t the first choice of the Air Force’s basing commission, but not the second or third either. Rogers finally cut him off saying his time had expired (members have 5 minutes to ask questions) even though he clearly agreed.

The dispute pits full committee chairman Rogers against his fellow Republican Doug Lamborn who represents Colorado Springs and chairs the Strategic Forces subcommittee that handles most DOD space issues.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) questions Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall at a House Armed Services Committee hearing April 27, 2023. Screengrab.

Lamborn also did not directly ask Kendall when a decision would be made, but got assurances that all factors will be considered.

Lamborn: I’m deeply concerned about moving Space Command’s headquarters. I believe it’ll undermine our national security. At a time when China and Russia are becoming more aggressive with their space capabilities, I understand the Command is months away from achieving full operational capability at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. This means that we would be moving backwards in our efforts to organize space as a warfighting domain if we moved the Command away from Colorado Springs, wherever it might be moved to, because moving would delay full operational capability by four to six years. … Will you commit that all relevant criteria will be weighed as you make the final decision and that we can continue to have an open dialogue on this issue?

Kendall: Yes, Congressman, I will.  I think you and the Chairman may have slightly different points of view on this, but we are taking into account all of the issues that have been raised. As you mentioned, Full Operational Capability will be reached in a relatively short period of time, shorter than what was originally planned. There is a disruption, of course, involved in any move. So we’re trying to take into consideration all possible factors that will affect the final decision.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) questioning Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall at at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, May 2, 2023. Screengrab.

At that hearing Kendall avoided being put in a position of saying when a decision would be made, but a week later at the SASC hearing Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) put him on the spot. Kendall replied he had no new information to offer.

Tuberville: Secretary Kendall, it wouldn’t be a hearing if I didn’t ask you about Space Command. You and I have talked about this quite a bit. Are we getting closer? You know, I hate that this … we’re on the verge in our lifetime of a dangerous world. And we might be fighting this thing from space if we don’t watch it and we want to make sure we’re doing the right things. I hope this doesn’t get political. It looks like it is. You know we’ve been waiting two years for a decision. Give me your thoughts on what’s going on with Space Command. General Dickinson in his last hearing here said that he needed a decision. So what’s your thoughts?

Kendall: I don’t have any news to report today, sir. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get a decision on this as soon as possible, but I don’t have any new information.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee, May 2, 2023. Screengrab.

Kendall agreed it’s important to have a permanent base, but “I just don’t have anything more to provide.”

The debate over USSPACECOM headquarters was just one facet of the lengthy hearings on the Department’s FY2024 budget request.

The overall message was the critical importance of passing appropriations in a timely manner rather than forcing the Department to operate under a Continuing Resolution that not only holds it to current funding levels, but does not allow new programs to start or old ones to end. That would be “devastating,” as would cuts to the Air Force or Space Force budgets.

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