Get the Daily News Digest in your inbox each morning. Sign Up

Stephen Boyd: The SPACECOM basing decision has become a “charade;” the warfighter deserves better 

Did the Air Force officials responsible for finalizing the permanent home of Space Command get sucked into a deep space black hole, never to be seen or heard from again? Close observers of the basing process—now in its 53rd month—will be forgiven for thinking so. 

In reality, we know at least Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is safely on Earth: he recently made proof-of-life appearances on Capitol Hill. 

Kendall’s recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee is noteworthy. The powerful panel—now chaired by Alabama’s Mike Rogers—may be the biggest thing standing between President Joe Biden and a reversal of the Air Force’s prior selection of Redstone Arsenal as the “preferred location” for Space Command. 

To be clear, a multitude of factors—substantive, political, and pragmatic—are likely now in play. But as the former head of the legislative affairs office for one of the four big federal departments, I’m confident that Rogers’ perch atop the committee is on the minds of Department of Defense officials. 

Legislative Affairs 101: Don’t get crossways with the chairman that oversees your work. Especially now, Rogers matters—a lot. 

But this whole process should have ended two years ago when the Air Force concluded an eight-month evaluation of 66 communities across 26 states, and scored the top contenders against 21 objective factors. In January 2021, the Air Force announced that it had “conducted … visits to assess which of six … locations would be best suited to host” SPACECOM HQ “based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense. Huntsville compared favorably across more of these factors than any other community…”

Had the final decision then been made solely on what the Air Force thought was in the best long-term interest of the warfighter, crews would be moving red dirt behind Gate 9 at Redstone right now. 

That didn’t happen. Instead, the Congressional delegation from Colorado, a blue state with a proud Air Force heritage, objected to the decision to send the 1,450-person headquarters to Alabama, a red state with a big Army presence. The theory of Colorado’s case: the Air Force wanted the permanent headquarters in Colorado, but then-President Donald Trump intervened to deliver the HQ as a political gift to Alabama. 

But the evidence doesn’t back up that allegation.  

  • The Air Force’s selection process was based on sound methodology and objective data.    
  • A detailed assessment of environmental impacts at Redstone came up clean.
  • An extensive investigation into the evaluation process by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General found that “the process Air Force officials used to select Huntsville . . . as the preferred permanent location for” SPACECOM HQ “complied with law and policy, and was reasonable in identifying Huntsville as the preferred permanent location.” 
  • Finally, the Government Accountability Office found “that the Air Force’s revised selection process included an assessment of costs, benefits, and capabilities of the final six locations, after which it was determined that Redstone Arsenal was the preferred location,” noting that “the Air Force took some steps to ensure the revised process assessed candidate locations without a predetermined solution in mind. For example, the Air Force designed evaluation factors to ensure candidate locations received due consideration, and clearly documented analysis in the Nomination and Evaluation Phases.”

Less recognized in the GAO report’s fine print is that the watchdog agency actually did find bias in the process—bias in favor of Colorado. An 11th hour attempt to inject Colorado’s facility back into the mix despite its relatively poor ranking was based on “unsubstantiated information.” Those last-minute shenanigans were scuttled. 

The process now seems stalled. In November, Space Command Commanding General James H. Dickinson said a final decision was coming “soon,” but it didn’t. In March, Kendall announced an unplanned round of “additional analysis.” To my ear, that sounds like bureaucratic purgatory where anything could happen behind closed doors. It’s been radio silence since. 

And that brings us back to the House hearing where Kendall appeared as a witness running into a buzzsaw. Chairman Rogers wasted no time, raising the issue in his opening statement: 

“We are beyond the point of frustration with the continued delay in announcing the final decision on SPACECOM basing. Twenty-seven months ago, the Air Force made the right decision to go with Huntsville, Alabama. Twelve months ago, the GAO and the DOD inspector general affirmed that decision. There is only one state still protesting, and that state came in fifth in that competition. The political games must end. Your continued hand-wringing is delaying SPACECOM’s full operational capability and undermining our ability to defend this nation. You need to end this charade and make that announcement soon.”

Dale Strong, the freshman Representative from Huntsville that sought and won a seat on the committee for moments like this, prosecuted the witness with a string of questions that created a compelling record for his colleagues. Strong’s questions demonstrated that, despite the Colorado delegation’s rhetoric, the competition between Alabama and Colorado wasn’t even close. Alabama was first in every phase; Colorado was no better than fourth. 

Rogers, Strong and others are right to be frustrated. 

Moving forward, some believe that President Joe Biden might simply reverse course to stick it to his predecessor and potential presidential opponent. I doubt it. Washington operates in ways more opaque than that. More likely, the threat lies in pretextual justifications for tweaking the criteria in subtle ways that would eventually alter the outcome. Here are three possibilities to watch for, and why they should fail. 

Argument 1: Officials might raise a “readiness” concern, claiming that moving people and equipment to Redstone and constructing new buildings on the arsenal would delay full operational capability of the command.  Defense: In March of 2022, Dickinson testified in the Senate that “we are in the process right now of building the infrastructure that we need to do the mission that I have been given . . . and we are moving in that direction. I would say we are a couple [to] three years away from full operational capability. . . no matter where we are located,” meaning that moving to Redstone was not materially different in terms of readiness than any other location. Moreover, recent history shows that the biggest impediment to the Air Force achieving full operations has been the Air Force’s own “hand-wringing,” as Rogers put it. 

Argument 2:  Force requirements have changed, and a smaller force means additional options to renovate existing buildings in Colorado rather than build new ones in Alabama. Defense: Any effort to artificially resize the Command must be closely scrutinized, as you’ll be hard pressed to find many examples of government agencies voluntarily downsizing their workforces. On top of that, space is a growth industry, becoming more contested each day. It’s not credible to suggest that our future fighting force in space is stronger with one-third less people.   

Argument 3: Abortion politics make Alabama an unsuitable location. Defense: As Inside Alabama Politics outlined this week, abortion policy, Senate procedure, and the Department’s personnel policies have intersected in unhelpful ways, and this a real concern according to former and current military officials to whom I’ve spoken. Regardless of the underlying issues, military leaders should not allow fleeting political scuffles to interfere with long-term basing decisions. They must do whatever makes the military as lethal as possible in the long run.  

One final point from Strong’s questioning. As he correctly notes, Colorado’s delegation did not call on Biden to “do what’s best for national security.” Instead, they simply said “reverse the decision” and “suspend any action” to locate the headquarters. Those are not principled positions based on facts, because facts do not support their desired outcome.   

China looms, with Taiwan in the crosshairs. The next big war will start in space, and the thing that matters most is ensuring America can deter, defend, and defeat the enemy in space. When left to make an objective evaluation, the Air Force determined that locating SPACECOM HQ at Redstone Arsenal best advanced that mission, a fact the Alabama delegation is well positioned to hammer home as this charade drags on.  


Get the Daily News Digest in your inbox each morning.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Web Development By Infomedia