Rogers Demands Air Force IG Investigation of USSPACECOM HQ Decision

Rogers Demands Air Force IG Investigation of USSPACECOM HQ Decision

The long simmering feud between the Alabama and Colorado congressional delegations over the location of U.S. Space Command headquarters erupted again today at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) bitterly condemned the process by which President Biden decided to keep it in Colorado instead of moving it to Alabama as promised by then-President Trump. Rogers wants another Inspector General investigation akin to the one the Colorado delegation demanded following the Trump decision two years ago.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) chairing a hearing on the decision to base U.S. Space Command in Colorado rather than Alabama, September 28, 2023. Screengrab.

Rogers opened the hearing by saying they were there to “examine the striking irregularities in the Biden Administration’s handling of U.S. Space Command headquarters.”

One of the 11 Unified Combatant Commands, U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) was reestablished by President Trump in August 2019 and is temporarily headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO, site of a number of national security space installations.

The Air Force is the designated support service for USSPACECOM and, anticipating Trump’s announcement, began a basing decision process to select a permanent headquarters location months in advance.

Winning a new military installation is a big prize for any state because of the jobs and prestige that go along with it. Debate over where USSPACECOM should be located is not partisan, but driven by state and local interests.

The basing process was controversial from the beginning. In May 2019, the Air Force announced six possible locations, 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 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, but it followed a meeting at the White House where then-President Trump was said to have been the person who made the decision.

The Colorado delegation argued that Trump chose Alabama for political reasons, rewarding them for supporting his election bid, and called on the new Biden Administration to review it.

The DOD Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office each investigated and found no wrongdoing and that Huntsville, AL was the top choice based on factors considered by the formal basing review process. However, the DOD IG discovered that an additional factor — how quickly the new facility could reach operational  readiness — was added at the last minute that gave preference to Colorado Springs.

For its part, GAO concluded then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made changes to the process that left “shortfalls in its transparency and credibility.”

Those reports were issued over a year ago, but a decision on where to put USSPACECOM lingered until two months ago when, on July 31, President Biden announced it would stay in Colorado.

The decision sparked outrage from the Alabama delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, particularly Rogers. Now, they are making the same claim — that the President chose the location for political reasons, in this case rewarding Colorado with its two Democratic Senators and Democratic Governor. Some Republicans also claim it was because Colorado allows abortions and Alabama has very restrictive abortion laws.

Gen. James Dickinson, Commander, U.S. Space Command, at a HASC hearing on where to locate USSPACECOM HQ, September 28, 2023. Screengrab.

Today’s hearing featured Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, Commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. James Dickinson, and U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman.

U.S. Space Force is headquartered at the Pentagon and is not affected by this debate. It does have installations in Colorado Springs that support U. S. Space Command. None of those installations is moving and Rogers wanted to make that point.

The Secretary of the Air Force nominally is the person to make basing decisions and Kendall had said at other hearings and elsewhere that he would be doing it for USSPACECOM. Asked today when he found out that Biden would do it instead, Kendall replied “shortly before the decision was made.”

Kendall favored Huntsville in large part because it is much less expensive to build a new facility there. Dickinson, however, argued USSPACECOM would reach full operational capability (FOC) more quickly if it remained where it is, the reason given for Biden picking Colorado instead.

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) at HASC hearing on USSPACECOM headquarters, September 28, 2023. Screengrab.

Rogers and others, especially Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), aimed their anger and frustration at Dickinson, challenging his assertion that operational readiness could be compromised if the headquarters moves elsewhere.

In April, he’d said he expected to achieve FOC by this fall, but that has slipped to the end of this year because USSPACECOM was recently given additional responsibilities for missile defense.

His argument is that many of the civilians working for USSPACECOM would not want to move and it would take time to train new personnel in Huntsville. Rogers and Sewell fervidly pointed out that Huntsville, known as Rocket City and home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army Space and Missile Defense Command (which Dickinson led before his assignment to USSPACECOM), has plenty of technical talent. Rogers added that USSPACECOM will not be moving for another 8 years when the leases expire on its Colorado facilities and that is plenty of time to figure out how to deal with the personnel situation.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), at HASC hearing on U.S. Space Command headquarters, September 28, 2023. Screengrab.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), chairman of HASC’s Strategic Forces Subcommitee, held firm with his position that although Huntsville had been the first choice at one point in the basing review process, after the factor of operational readiness was added, Colorado Springs rose to the top.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, agreed that the entire episode raises questions, but insisted Biden’s decision was not political. Calling it a “horrible process, ” he said it’s time to “stop the bleeding” and focus on how to defend the nation, not where to locate a new Command. He emphatically disagreed that the decision was political either when Trump made it or Biden.

“I do not believe that either President Trump or President Biden made this decision based on politics. It’s an unfortunate charge that both sides have thrown out when the decision didn’t go the way they wanted it to. I mean, I know a little bit about politics and  [I] really … can’t imagine that some sort of election is going to be determined based on where one 1,400 person building is located whether it’s in Alabama or Colorado.” — Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA)

Instead, it’s a matter of what factors are considered, Smith continued. It may be cheaper to build a building in Huntsville than Colorado Springs, but that’s not the only question.  Overall his complaint is that the original decision should not have been made in the last “absolute minute” of the Trump Administration.

Smith said he hoped everyone could move on at the end of the hearing and focus on bigger issues “surrounding Space Command and space policy” at DOD.

Rogers didn’t seem to agree. He closed the hearing by announcing he is requesting the Air Force Inspector General to investigate and will ensure Congress does not authorize any funds to build a new headquarters in Colorado until he is satisifed.

“Congress gets to decide what we’re going to authorize and what we’re going to pay for. It is my intent to make sure that the competition results are honored and that the permanent basing headquarters are authorized and funded to be constructed in Huntsville, Alabama and that during that period of time provisional headquarters in Colorado Springs is fully funded…” — Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)

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