Two federal reports muddy water around decision to relocate Space Command away from Colorado

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President Donald Trump watches with Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Mark Esper as the flag for U.S. space Command is unfurled as Trump announces the establishment of the U.S. Space Command in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.

One of two long-awaited government reports on the decision to move Space Command from Colorado to Alabama seems to support the claim that the selection was legal and reasonable based on the criteria the military looked at. But Colorado lawmakers say another report due out soon may still turn up flaws in the process.

The Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General has found that former President Donald Trump’s decision to move the Space Command Headquarters from Colorado to Alabama was “reasonable.” It could be a damaging, but not fatal, blow for Colorado lawmakers seeking to have President Joe Biden revisit the decision. 

In the meantime, Colorado's political leaders, who are fighting to keep the Command in the state, argue that the DoD report doesn't capture the full picture of the process and that a more detailed look at the decision — the one coming from the Government Accountability Office — may still vindicate their efforts.

But the DoD’s report was clear in its assessment of the decision.

“We determined that the 2020 Basing Action process was reasonable in identifying Huntsville, Alabama, as the preferred permanent location to host the USSPACECOM HQ,” the DoD’s report found. 

Reports spark reactions and more questions from Colorado’s federal lawmakers 

A group of Colorado’s top politicians requested the DoD — as well as the federal government’s Government Accountability Office — investigate the base relocation decision

Sens. Michael Benent and John Hickenlooper said they are still reviewing the report. 

“Our position remains that the previous administration used a basing process for U.S. Space Command that was untested, lacked transparency, and neglected critical national security and cost considerations,” they said in a joint statement. “Chief among those concerns is Peterson Space Force Base’s singular ability to reach Full Operational Capability as quickly as possible. Space Command should remain permanently based at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado.”

According to the Defense Department’s Inspector General report, officials looked at 21 criteria and ranked six finalist sites during an initial phase of deciding where to place the Space Command headquarters. The report shows that Huntsville topped the list. It is unclear where Colorado Springs fell, since the rest of the list is redacted, as is much of the input from senior officials on how the final decision was made.

What is clear from the redacted report is that the process for reaching the decision changed from January 10, 2021 to January 12, 2021. 

According to digital magazine Breaking Defense, which first reported the IG findings, Colorado Springs was low on the list of 21 potential headquarters sites, but through the “military judgment” of top officials, Colorado was moved to the top of the list that was presented to Trump on January 11. 

However, a day later, on January 12, then Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett signed a memo selecting Huntsville as the permanent home for Space Command HQ.

The report found “the ranking of Colorado Springs, Colorado, as the preferred permanent location to host the USSPACECOM HQ in the January 10, 2021 Decision Matrix was not supportable.” 

On Twitter, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby called the turn of events good news.

“[The report] reaffirms what I have already known to be true: that the Air Force selected Huntsville based on merit and that Huntsville is the best place for Space Command to call home,” Shelby wrote.

A person familiar with the report says it still raises many questions, especially about how the data used to select the site were analyzed and how officials conducted the process. Among those questions was how the selection process defined that an area had an adequate work force, for example, and how heavily it weighted that a site had full operational capability in making its final site determination. 

“You can say, 'Yes, Huntsville was ranked first,' but I think there are real and legitimate questions about the analysis of the data and the ranking of the data,” the person familiar with the report said. 

The Defense Department usually has 90 days to respond to recommendations made in an IG report. Two of the recommendations that could impact Colorado Springs’ ranking are to review leadership’s concerns about establishing full operational capability and to review the analysis on childcare, housing affordability, and access to military/veteran support in the area.

Colorado leaders seized on the recommendations in the report to argue the process was flawed.

“The report highlights the lack of critical documentation and policy and most concerningly, shows that the former president ignored senior military leaders' recommendation to keep USSPACECOM in Colorado Springs,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.

GAO report still to come

In the meantime, the report's findings seem to differ from those of investigators with the Government Accountability Office. The GAO's work is still ongoing, but some details have started to become public.

After seeing a draft of the GAO IG report last month, Bennet, Hickenlooper and Reps. Doug Lamborn and Jason Crow said in a statement that “We are even more concerned about the questionable decision to move U.S. Space Command from Colorado to Alabama.”

Colorado’s members of Congress concluded in their statement, “Putin’s war on Ukraine and China’s space expansion underscore the need for U.S. Space Command to reach full operational capability as soon as possible. We cannot afford any operational disruptions or delays to the mission currently being conducted at Peterson Space Force Base, which is why U.S. Space Command must remain in Colorado.”

The two investigations have somewhat different focuses.

The Pentagon’s IG report examined whether the Department of Defense and Air Force complied with their own policies, used objective and relevant scoring and calculated cost and other factors accurately and consistently among the six locations being considered for the headquarters. The GAO report is broader, examining the legitimacy of that methodology as a whole.

Lamborn dismissed the DoD report as focused largely on providing a chronology of the basing decision and examining whether any “nefarious or illegal” actions took place. 

“The forthcoming GAO report did a much deeper review of the criteria and scoring in this basing decision [than the DoD report],” Lamborn said in a statement. “With only a cursory review of the process itself, the DoD OIG’s conclusion that the previous basing decision was reasonable simply means that it was logical based on flawed evaluations.” 

Trump’s decision to move base in last days of presidency invited initial scrutiny

The publication of the DoD IG report comes more than a year after Trump announced the move in the waning days of his administration. Trump later told an Alabama talk radio station the decision to move Space Command was one made “single-handedly” by himself

Colorado’s congressional delegation quickly and unanimously denounced the Huntsville move as a last-minute political reward from Trump for the state and its lawmakers who supported his bid for a second term as president. Alabama’s two Republican Senators were key in Trump avoiding conviction in a then-upcoming second impeachment trial. 

Colorado’s delegation has since sent multiple letters to President Biden and other top federal officials, most recently in March, urging the decision to move the headquarters be revisited. They argue Colorado already hosts the majority of the nation’s space-focused military personnel and controls many of the military’s most critical satellite assets. They say moving the command to Huntsville is an unnecessary step that will cost the country billions of dollars. 

Alabama officials argue their state is a logical location for the command. The Army’s Redstone Arsenal, adjacent to Huntsville, is home to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The Huntsville area also boasts lower home prices and cost of living than Colorado’s Front Range. 

Colorado Springs has been the only city to host the Command, starting when it was first established in 1985 and then again when the Trump Administration restarted it in 2019 as the U.S. war in Afghanistan wound down and prompted a new focus on potential spacefaring adversaries like Russia and China. 

The basing decision has been fraught: In 2019, Colorado had four sites in contention to be the permanent Space Force Headquarters. Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper directed officials to restart the process in March 2020 in order to make the decision one “that was fair and transparent.” Colorado had only one base on that finalist list.