Space Command HQ Debate Looms Large in House Defense Bills

Space Command HQ Debate Looms Large in House Defense Bills

The two House committees that provide policy guidance and money for national security space activities made it clear this week that the location of U.S. Space Command headquarters is a key issue. The debate has lingered without resolution for more than two years as President Biden weighs whether to reverse his predecessor’s decision to move it to Alabama from Colorado. In Congress, the Alabama delegation is putting the battle front and center in this year’s defense authorization and appropriations legislation.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (HAC-D) clearly want USSPACECOM to move to Alabama and include language in their respective bills to that end.

Gen. James Dickinson (U.S. Army), Commander, U.S. Space Command.

USSPACECOM is one of the 11 Unified Combatant Commands in charge of warfighting, as compared to U.S. Space Force, one of the six military services that “organize, train, and equip” personnel who are assigned to the 11 Combatant Commands as needed. General James Dickinson (U.S. Army) is Commander of USSPACECOM.

Reestablished by President Trump in 2019, USSPACECOM is temporarily headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO, home to a number of other DOD space facilities as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy. The Colorado delegation is determined to keep it there. Former President Trump decided days before he left office to move it to Huntsville, AL, however, and HASC Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) and the Alabama delegation are just as determined to make sure it gets there.

The long-running, bitter dispute centers on whether Trump’s decision to move it to Alabama was as a thank you for their support during the election and contradicted a recommendation from senior military leaders to keep it in Colorado.

Both the Government Accountability Office and the DOD Inspector General reviewed how the decision to put it in Alabama was made. The DOD IG determined it complied with law and policy, but GAO found it met only seven of 21 best practices. They concluded Huntsville, home to Army Space and Missile Defense Command as well as NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, was at the top of the list of the official basing recommendation when it was made. The dispute is over changes that occurred after that and discussed with Trump during a January 11, 2021 meeting  at the White House. The Colorado delegation fervently argues Colorado was the first choice if all information is taken into account. Trump made the decision at that meeting and those conversations are not public, leaving the question hanging.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing in Colorado to get USSPACECOM to full operational capability as quickly as possible, one thing everyone agrees is important. Dickinson, who makes it clear he has no preference himself, said in April he expects to reach FOC in Colorado later this year.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) chairing a HASC hearing on Apr. 27 2023. Screengrab.

Rogers has included language in the FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that is going through markup right now that would prohibit the use of funding to construct or modify facilities for the temporary or permanent headquarters of USSPACECOM until the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF), who officially makes the basing decision, submits a report on the justification for selecting a permanent headquarters.

It furthermore prohibits the Office of the SecAF from spending more than 50 percent of its FY2024 travel money until the report is submitted. SecAF Frank Kendall has been questioned by both House and Senate Members about when a decision will be made, but so far hasn’t been able to give much of an answer.

In the House, the debate pits Rogers against fellow Republican Doug Lamborn who not only represents Colorado Springs, but chairs HASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee and is the most ardent advocate for keeping it where it is. The subcommittee marked up its portion of the bill on Tuesday. HASC subcommittee markups are rather pro forma, with controversial issues deferred until full committee markup, and it took just 12 minutes.

Full committee markup is scheduled for Wednesday, June 21, where the topic is expected to generate considerable discussion.

House appropriators are also weighing in on this in favor of Alabama.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama)

HAC-D marked up their FY2024 appropriations bill on Thursday and it goes even further than HASC. It prohibits the use of funds for a temporary or permanent headquarters not just until the SecAF submits a report, but until he “formally selects and publicly announces the permanent location … in alignment with” the Air Force basing selection process “as validated by” GAO and the DOD Inspector General. That’s the original decision to put it in Alabama.

This basing decision is a bipartisan issue with the entire delegations from both states fighting for their state to win. HASC has other members from both states in addition to Rogers and Lamborn, but only Alabama is represented on the House Appropriations Committee. Two appropriators are from Alabama, including Robert Aderholt (R-AL) who represents a district near Huntsville and is one of the committee’s “cardinals,” chairing the Labor-HHS subcommittee. He’s also a member of the Defense Subcommittee.

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