The Air Force’s decision last year to move U.S. Space Command headquarters from Colorado to Alabama was marred by a shoddy and unclear process that could give the impression of bias or lack of credibility, according to a congressional report.
Concern has been mounting over suspicions that the decision was improperly influenced by the former Republican Commander in Chief or his political allies.
The findings in the 89-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), showed the suggested move from Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal lacked important information such as cost considerations for moving the entire command nearly 1,200 miles away.
In August, former President Donald Trump stoked concerns that he had short-circuited the selection process when he called into a syndicated radio show that airs in Alabama.
“Space Force — I sent to Alabama,” Trump told the Rick & Bubba Show. “I hope you know that. [They] said they were looking for a home, and I single-handedly said, ‘Let’s go to Alabama.’ They wanted it. I said, ‘Let’s go to Alabama. I love Alabama.'”
The GAO report does not address whether Trump, senior military officials, or a partisan political aide was responsible for the ultimate selection of Redstone Arsenal.
Trump often blurred the lines separating his personal and political interests from those of the public office he commanded.
“The practices are grouped into four characteristics of a high-quality analysis: comprehensive, well-documented, unbiased, and credible,” said the GAO. “We found that the Air Force’s process did not substantially meet 3 of these 4 characteristics—leading to significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility.”
From December 2018 through early March 2020, the Air Force largely followed its established strategic basing process to determine the preferred location for U.S. Space Command headquarters.
From early March 2020 through January 2021, the Air Force implemented a revised, three-phased process at the direction of then-Secretary of Defense Richard V. Spencer, culminating in the selection of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama as the preferred location.
The revised process followed some elements of the established process, but included different steps. For example, in its revised process, the Air Force solicited nominations from all 50 states instead of beginning with a set of candidates based on their respective ability to meet defined functional requirements.
GAO found that the Air Force’s revised process fully or substantially met 7 of 21 Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) best practices it assessed. These best practices are grouped into four characteristics of a high-quality AOA process. GAO found that the revised process did not fully or substantially meet 3 of 4 characteristics.
Assessment of the Air Force’s Revised Process for U.S. Space Command Basing against GAO’s Four Characteristics of an Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) Process
Air Force officials told GAO they did not use the AOA best practices as a guide during the revised process because the practices were not required or relevant to base decisions.
However, GAO believes that the AOA best practices are relevant and, if effectively implemented, can help ensure such basing decisions are transparent and deliberate.
Developing basing guidance consistent with these best practices, and determining the basing actions to which it should apply, would better position the Air Force to substantiate future basing decisions and help prevent bias, or the appearance of bias, from undermining their credibility.
The final basing decision is expected to be announced in spring 2023, pending the outcome of the required environmental impact analysis.
“While the Air Force initially followed key aspects of its established basing process, Air Force officials acknowledged that they condensed some procedural steps of the established process,” the report states. “We also found that some steps were eliminated.”
Elizabeth Field, a director in GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management team, told Military.com that the report doesn’t discuss whether Redstone Arsenal would be a reasonable location for U.S. Space Command because investigators encountered a lack of clear records and transparent steps showing how the Air Force made the decision.
“One of the things that really sticks out to us is the fact that the Air Force didn’t fully consider the cost of the basing decision or relocating infrastructure and personnel at Peterson to somewhere else,” Field told Military.com.
The report reviewed the process for how Redstone Arsenal became a finalist and, ultimately, won out over five other finalist locations: Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico; Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska; Patrick Space Force Base, Florida; Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado; and Kelly Field at Port San Antonio, Texas.
Peterson, notably, was the original headquarters for U.S. Space Command in 1985 and became the interim home for it when it was reactivated in August 2019, before the Space Force became the military’s sixth service branch later that year.
But proper analysis for each of those bases, specifically Peterson, seemed to be ignored.
“A senior U.S. Space Command official similarly told us that renovating the existing building at Peterson Air Force Base would likely allow the command to reach full operational capability sooner than constructing a new headquarters building,” the report found.
From December 2018 through early March 2020, the process for narrowing down the possible locations for U.S. Space Command mostly followed an established process, but from early March 2020 through January 2021, the Air Force changed up the steps to analyze the locations, leading to the ultimate selection of Redstone.
“Although the Air Force documented the general rationale for selecting Redstone Arsenal in an action memorandum and accompanying documents, 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,” the report said.
The GAO’s report follows a Department of Defense inspector general’s report published last month that said the selection process was marred by shoddy record keeping, but the ultimate decision to choose Huntsville was reasonable and the selection wasn’t improper.
Colorado’s delegation in Washington was alarmed at the move of the command, as well as the loss of 1,400 jobs and millions in funding to Alabama, and had requested the GAO investigation and the Pentagon’s inquiry into the selection.
Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, as well as Democratic Rep. Jason Crow and Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, issued a statement saying both reports should be reviewed by President Joe Biden and military leaders to reverse course on moving U.S. Space Command.
“We have serious concerns about how this conclusion was reached, which contradicts the military leadership’s stated goal of reaching full operational capability as quickly as possible,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Our national security should be the deciding factor in basing decisions. With the investigations now complete, the shortcomings of the Space Command basing process are fully available to the Biden administration.”
Bennet and Hickenlooper met with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on May 17 to voice their concerns, shortly after the Pentagon’s inspector general report went public.
Kendall told members of Congress last month that the Department of the Air Force will review the investigations before making any decisions on the U.S. Space Command location.