Will the Biden administration act to keep U.S. Space Command in Colorado?


When the U.S. Air Force announced on January 13, 2021 that the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama had been selected as the permanent home of U.S. Space Command (USSC), rather than Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, as most expected, Colorado Members of Congress unanimously cried foul. Two different government agencies, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Defense Department and the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the U.S. Congress, soon initiated separate reviews of the process that led to the decision. Both agencies have just issued their final reports on the matter. Also of note is that the Air Force has said that a final decision on the permanent home of USSC will be made in spring 2023.

USSC was originally created in September 1985 then eliminated in 2002, when its duties were transferred to U.S. Strategic Command. In August 2019, former President Trump brought it back to “deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power for the Joint/Combined force, and defend US vital interests with allies and partners.” It was placed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs on a temporary basis. At about the same time, the Air Force made it known that it had already narrowed down the list of permanent homes for USSC to six possible locations and they expected to approve a preferred location from those six that summer, then move forward with an environmental analysis of the selected location. Four of the six locations were in Colorado and Peterson AFB, whose name was changed to Peterson Space Force Base in July 2021, was one of those. 

In March 2020, Barbara Barret, Secretary of the Air Force, announced that the effort to select a permanent home for USSC would start all over again from scratch, including opening the search to all 50 states, including locations that didn’t even necessarily have an existing military base. When questions were asked about the change in plans, Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense, said, “I don’t see anything being announced before the election.” 

The 89-page report by the GAO on how Huntsville was selected over Colorado Springs, recognized by many as the two top contenders, was released on June 2, 2022. It “assessed the process against 21 analysis of alternatives best practices, which can help increase transparency and avoid the presence or appearance of bias.”  It found that, “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,” but that, “From early March 2020 through January 2021, the Air Force implemented a revised, three-phased process at the direction of the then Secretary of Defense, culminating in the selection of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama as the preferred location.”

GAO determined that the revised process adopted after March 2020 “fully or substantially met 7 of 21 Analysis of Alternatives best practices it assessed. These best practices are grouped into four characteristics of a high-quality Analysis of Alternatives process. GAO found that the revised process did not fully or substantially meet 3 of 4 characteristics.” 

The 120-page report of the OIG’s findings was released on May 11, 2022. It concluded that the decision by the Air Force to move USSC to Huntsville from Peterson SFB in Colorado Springs “complied with federal law and DOD policy and…was reasonable.” However, it noted that the OIG “could not fully verify the accuracy of the rankings of the six candidate locations (including Peterson SFB) due to the lack of documentation.” The full report also included a decision matrix dated January 10, 2021, with significant redactions, that says, “This assessment supports the selection of Colorado Springs as the preferred alternative and Huntsville as the feasible alternative,” then notes, “Our evaluation did not assess the President of the United States’ legal authorities as Commander-In-Chief…” A timeline in the report shows that the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force, along with others, met with President Trump on January 11, 2021. A new decision matrix dated January 12 named Huntsville as the preferred alternative and all the other locations under consideration as reasonable alternatives.  The report outlines the differences between the original decision matrix prepared on January 10 that named Colorado Springs as the preferred choice and the subsequent decision matrix prepared on January 12 that named Huntsville as the preferred choice, but that analysis is completely redacted. 

The OIG report also recommended that the Secretary of Defense “establish policy and procedures for implementing basing actions of a unified combatant command” and noted that that recommendation remained unresolved as of May 11, 2022, when the report was prepared. 

After both the GAO and the OIG reports were released, Colorado Senators Michael Bennet (D) and John Hickenlooper (D), together with Colorado U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn (R) and Jason Crow (D) said, “Over the past year, we’ve repeatedly raised concerns that the previous administration used a flawed, untested, and inconsistent process to select a location for U.S. Space Command. The reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Defense Inspector General both confirm that the basing process lacked integrity and neglected key national security considerations. We now know that in a White House meeting in January 2021, senior military leadership recommended Colorado Springs as the preferred location for Space Command due to the unique ability of Peterson Space Force Base to reach Full Operational Capability significantly faster than any other potential location, and at a significantly lower cost. However, following this meeting a different location was announced as the selection, and justified with inconsistent documentation and unclear reasoning. 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. 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. We urge them to review the reports’ findings, and make a decision in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that prioritizes our national security and mission in space. The American people must be able to trust that this decision is objective and provides for our national security and leadership in space. Peterson remains the only and best home for U.S. Space Command.”

After the GAO and OIG reports were made public, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers issued this statement: “The GAO report today confirmed what we have stated throughout – that the process that recommended moving Space Command out of Colorado Springs was vastly flawed. Citing ‘shortfalls in transparency and credibility,’ the report specifically gave low scores in three of the four assessment categories covering documentation, credibility, and bias. It’s difficult to imagine a more condemnatory characterization of the process… Now that we have the full and consistent findings of both reports, we look to the Biden Administration to do the right thing in the interest of national security and confirm Colorado Springs as the permanent home for U.S. Space Command.”