WASHINGTON: Despite accusations of political manipulation by then-President Donald Trump, the decision to headquarter Space Command in Huntsville, Ala., was a “reasonable” one based on the Air Force internal review process, according to the final report of the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General, obtained by Breaking Defense.
The finding doesn’t directly contradict allegations of White House political shenanigans levied by Colorado’s congressional delegation and state and local officials — allegations that, in all fairness, were given credence by Trump himself last summer when he bragged about having “single-handedly” chosen Alabama. At the same time, the OIG makes clear that the decision was justifiable based on the Pentagon’s basing review process, and that the choice was first championed by then-Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
The final report from OIG is a redacted, trimmed down version of a 73-page draft report also obtained by Breaking Defense. That draft reveals that Huntsville came in first during the 2020 metric-based evaluation phase. That central phase was guided by four “evaluation factors,” supported by 21 weighted criteria that added up to 100 points. Albuquerque came in second; Bellevue, third; and San Antonio, fourth. Colorado Springs was fifth, followed by Patrick Space Force Base near Cape Canaveral.
But the decision document briefed to Trump on Jan. 11, 2021 named Colorado Springs as the first choice. That decision, the OIG draft explains, was made only days before based on the “best military judgement” of top brass, including SPACECOM leader Gen. James Dickinson, Space Force chief Gen. Jay Raymond, and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten. Their specific comments were redacted in the final version of the report, expected to be released to Congress this evening.
The report’s recommendations potentially open the door to yet another re-do of the basing review, depending on what the Air Force decides to do in response. If yet another round of reviews are conducted, it could push standing up SPACECOM’s new headquarters years down the road.
The excruciatingly detailed OIG draft, including recommendations, was provided to top Defense Department civilians and top military brass for comment about two months ago. While in practice the OIG is open to making changes based on comments and concerns, legally the watchdog office retains sole authority to decide whether or not to accommodate them.
Michael Roark, OIG deputy inspector general for evaluations, told Breaking Defense Monday that the OIG did not address the question of where SPACECOM HQ should be based; rather it reviewed of the adequacy of the process vis-a-vis Defense Department and Air Force rules, and its implementation.
“It was never our intention with this eval to decide or recommend where the base should be located. I mean, that’s not really our responsibility,” he said in an exclusive interview. “Our eval was just to catalog and describe everything that transpired, how we got to this point, and we feel like we’ve done that. We do believe that there are some things that need to be finalized, before the final decision is made.”
Roark said there are no substantive differences between the draft and the final version, the latter of which is being provided to Congress and the Pentagon today. Besides some “very minor wording changes,” he said, the final report “incorporates” comments and responses from the Department of the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
But the publicly releasable final version omits quite a bit of content and context from the draft report obtained by Breaking Defense, as several sections were deemed “controlled unclassified information” or CUI. CUI is a relatively recent, controversial designation that has drawn the ire of lawmakers for its overuse in Pentagon reports.
Those CUI sections primarily cover how the candidate sites were ranked during various stages of the process, as well as the specific concerns that led the top space brass to strongly push for Colorado Springs.
Pentagon organizations under scrutiny actually “are the owners of the information” subject to OIG investigation, Roark explained, and as such are charged with its classification. “We have to rely on the security markings that the department, in this case the Air Force and the OSD, put on their information,” he said.
Huntsville: Consistent Winner On Metrics
Huntsville is home of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and the hub for Army space activities since the Cold War, when Werner Von Braun was a leader in the US space and missile race with the Soviets. It has placed first, based on the metrics used, during both base reviews undertaken by the Department of the Air Force since SPACECOM’s stand-up in August 2019, according to the draft OIG report.
Despite the Air Force twice finding that SPACECOM would have a better home way down south, Colorado Springs has remained popular with service leaders. It is home to Peterson SFB, currently serving SPACECOM’s temporary HQ, and long has sported a number of military and industry space facilities.
The first basing review began in December 2018. At the time, word was that Huntsville had won on “points,” though Peterson prevailed in the end. That review, however, was scrapped in November 2019 by then-Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, following the creation of the Space Force and complaints from Florida’s congressional delegation that their state had been left out of initial consideration.
The 2020 follow-on process used a broader set of screening criteria approved by then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, according to the draft OIG report. A phased decision process was established, starting with a self-nomination by interested communities, followed by an initial evaluation round and finally a selection phase.
Authorities in 26 states self-nominated 66 sites, which were winnowed down to 50 in the nomination phase, then 15 and then six in the evaluation phase. Those six, announced in November 2020, were Kirtland AFB, Albuquerque, N.M; Offutt AFB, Bellevue, Neb.; Patrick AFB, on Florida’s East Coast.; Port San Antonio in Texas; and finally both Redstone Arsenal and Peterson AFB. (Patrick and Peterson have since been designated as Space Force bases.)
After the research was complete, Redstone Arsenal was the clear winner. However, when the report was completed, the recommendation from the Pentagon was that Colorado Springs instead remain SPACECOM’s home, thanks to the interdiction of the senior military officers.
Why? The senior military space officers had taken several issues with Colorado Springs’ low ranking, according to the OIG draft, but the critical concern was that the process failed to take into account the need to rapidly bring SPACECOM up to full operational capability (FOC). Keeping SPACECOM at Peterson could “accelerate” FOC vice moving anywhere else, they claimed, despite the fact that all the candidate sites would require new facilities.
Air Force basing office subordinates protested that late changes to the criteria were not supportable by the facts at hand, the draft report said, and would require yet another do-over of the whole process to justify — concerns that the OIG in the end upheld.
In the end, Trump decided on Huntsville — a choice that the OIG draft notes was backed by Miller, who became acting defense secretary after Esper’s November 2020 firing. Despite the extensive review process, Trump portrayed the decision as a snap decision on his part.
“Space Force, I sent to Alabama,” Trump claimed in a radio show interview in August 2021. “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.”
Next Steps: Fixing The Paperwork Fail, Assessing FOC
The final OIG report, in essence, blesses the requirements that went into the 2020 basing process, and for the most part their implementation. However, it chides the basing office for failing to meet Air Force record-keeping requirements, which meant OIG could only partially validate that eight of the decision criteria were properly executed; and in the case of three relatively minor criteria even that was impossible.
Thus, the final OIG report makes four recommendations:
- OSD should establish a DoD-wide policy for unified combatant command basing decisions, including assessment of candidates ability to achieve FOC within a given timeframe. OSD partially agreed, but argued that it has existing practices, the final OIG report says. For its part, the OIG does not agree that those practices are enough, and is pressing OSD for a more detailed response. (The full comments are included in an annex to the final report.)
- OSD should review whether an FOC assessment should be applied in the case of SPACECOM. According to the final OIG report, OSD has concurred — even though a decision in favor of doing so would require going back to square one.
- The secretary of the Air Force should issue a memo requiring the basing office to retain all records of basing actions. The department agreed, the final report says.
- The secretary of the Air Force should review the basing offices evaluation of the three unvalidated criteria (childcare, housing affordability and access to military/veteran support.) The Air Force secretariat agreed that this will be done prior to finalizing the base choice, the final OIG report says
Roark stressed that the OIG will be working with, and monitoring, progress in implementing the recommendations.
“Once the final report goes out, that’s not the total end of the story. We’re constantly staying in touch with commands and organizations to ensure that the recommendations are actually completed as they said they will be,” he said.
Lastly, Roark noted that the choice of a “preferred” basing option also isn’t the final step in the over-arching process. After that determination is finally made, DoD by law has to undertake an environmental impact statement of the site. That effort is currently slated for the 2023 timeframe, he said.
In other words, the process could drag on for several more years before SPACECOM officially has a new home — at a time when Pentagon leaders continue to shout about the importance of space for its future operations.