NDAA Conferees Agree No Spending on Space Command Headquarters Until Next Summer

NDAA Conferees Agree No Spending on Space Command Headquarters Until Next Summer

House and Senate conferees on the FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act agreed that no funds may be spent on new headquarters for U. S. Space Command until June 30, 2024 when reports are due from the Government Accountability Office and the Air Force Inspector General on how President Biden made his July 2023 decision to keep it in Colorado. The bitterly contested issue has split the Alabama and Colorado congressional delegations for almost three years since then-President Trump decided to move it from Colorado to Alabama in the final days of his presidency.

House and Senate conferees completed their work on the FY2024 NDAA on Thursday. Both chambers are set to vote on the 3,093-page bill, H.R. 2670, this week. The bill cleared an initial procedural step in the Senate already. The House will take it up on the suspension calendar so it does not have to go through the Rules Committee.

Gen. James Dickinson, Commander, U.S. Space Command

For national security space, one of the most controversial issues is not over funding or broad policy questions, but where to locate the permanent headquarters of USSPACECOM. The years-long debate pits Alabama versus Colorado on a bipartisan basis. Republicans and Democrats in both states are united in their efforts to get USSPACECOM in their state not only because of the prestige of being home to one of the 11 Unified Combatant Commands, but the jobs that would come with it.

USSPACECOM was reestablished by Trump in August 2019 and is temporarily headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO, the site of several other major U.S. national security space facilities. After a complicated two-year Air Force process, Trump decided to move it to Huntsville, AL, in the final days of his presidency sparking charges that it was a political decision to reward Alabama for supporting him.

As soon as Biden took office, the Colorado congressional delegation asked him to review the situation. Two-and-a-half years later, on July 31, he said it would stay in Colorado.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-AL) and the rest of the Alabama delegation were incensed. They have insisted all along that Huntsville was the top-ranked location in the competitive selection process and Trump’s decision was not politically motivated. As chairman of HASC, Rogers has a lot of influence, although one of his chief opponents on this issue is fellow Republican Doug Lamborn (R-CO) who chairs HASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee.

In August, Rogers sent a letter to GAO asking for an investigation because of concerns about “untoward political interference.” At a tense hearing in September, Rogers went further and asked for a separate investigation by the Air Force Inspector General. Both GAO and the DOD IG already did such studies following Trump’s decision at the request of the Colorado delegation.

While the new investigations are underway, Rogers wants to ensure no money is spent on the Colorado location that might give it an edge. USSPACECOM Commander Gen. James Dickinson had said publicly in April that the temporary headquarters were making progress more quickly than expected and would reach full operational capability (FOC) this fall. He said at the hearing that he favored staying in Colorado for that reason, to achieve FOC as quickly as possible.

Rogers responded that “Congress gets to decide what we’re going to authorize and what we’re going to pay for.” Authorization bills do not provide money — only appropriators have money to spend — but can direct that no funds be expended on a particular project. That is the language in the final version of the NDAA.


Excerpt from the conference version of H.R. 2670, FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act.

Rogers wanted to restrict funding not only for USSPACECOM headquarters, but to limit 50 percent of the funding authorized for travel expenses for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force until Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall submitted a report on how the decision was made. He wasn’t alone. The Senate version of the bill had similar language. In the final version, they omitted the travel funds restriction.

Two significant issues where there were differences between the House and Senate were creation of a Space National Guard and funding for the WGS-12 wideband communications satellite.

The Space National Guard issue stems from the extraction of the U.S. Space Force from the U.S. Air Force.

The U.S. Space Force was established as a separate military service in December 2019, but remains part of the Department of the Air Force. The Air National Guard was created to support the U.S. Air Force, but some units now support the U.S. Space Force. The question is whether to create a Space National Guard to form a closer tie with the service they now support or if that would simply add unnecessary bureaucracy and costs.

The House version of this year’s NDAA would have established a Space National Guard, but the Senate version did not. Instead it called for an independent study, due in February 2025, by a federally funded research and development center on the pros and cons of keeping the national guard units as is, moving those units supporting Space Force into the Space Force, or creating a new Space National Guard.  The conference agreement instead calls for a study by the Secretary of Defense, rather than an independent entity, to assess “the feasibility and advisability of transferring all covered functions of the National Guard to the Space Force.” The report is due by March 1, 2024.

Another difference between the House and Senate was that the House prohibited issuing a contract to procure the WGS-12 wide-band communications satellite until the Air Force certified the requirements could not be met by a commercial provider. The Senate had no such provision and it was not included in the final bill.

The conferees instead expressed concern that WGS-12, like WGS-11, was not requested by the U.S. Space Force and “that the service, enabled by Congress, continues to rely on only purpose-built systems instead of working to bring more commercial capabilities into the satellite communications (SATCOM) architecture.” They direct the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisitions and Integration to submit a report to Congress by March 1, 2024 on how the follow-on wideband SATCOM system will incorporate commercial services.

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