GAO: U.S. Space Command basing decision process fell short on ‘transparency and credibility’

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GAO said the Air Force should develop guidance for strengthening future basing decisions

WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office in a report released June 2 raised concerns about how the U.S. Air Force selected Huntsville, Alabama, as its preferred location for U.S. Space Command, which currently is based in Colorado. 

After a year-long review, GAO found that the Air Force’s basing decision process largely followed guidelines directed by the secretary of defense. But GAO also identified “significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility,” said the report. As a result, the decision created the “appearance of bias.”

GAO said the January 2021 selection of Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location for U.S. Space Command headquarters was made using methods that are inconsistent with existing “best practices” used by federal government agencies in basing decisions. said the report. 

This review was conducted at the request of Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) who asked GAO to look into the methodology that led to the January 2021 recommendation by the Trump administration to relocate U.S. Space Command headquarters from Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

According to GAO, 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 process at the direction of then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, culminating in the selection of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

“The revised process followed some elements of the established basing 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,” said GAO.

The 89-page document released June 2 is an edited version of a more detailed report that GAO shared with lawmakers last month.

DoD asked that several sections of the original report not be disclosed due to the sensitivity of the content. GAO was directed to omit information on the number and names of candidates the Air Force would have considered under an amended enterprise definition; candidate scores and ranks during the evaluation phase; and certain scoring criteria such as available qualified workforce. 

GAO also removed from the public report information on the Air Force’s selection phase methodology; input to the deliberations before a January 11, 2021, meeting at the White House involving high-ranking officials; and the Air Force’s rationale for selecting Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location for U.S. Space Command headquarters. 

Although the Air Force documented the general rationale for selecting Redstone Arsenal in an action memorandum and accompanying documents, GAO noted, “there was no 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.”

GAO in the report recommends that the Air Force develop guidance for future strategic basing decisions that is consistent with GAO’s best practices. The Air Force neither agreed nor disagreed. Air Force officials told GAO that the established Air Force basing process “does not require the level of detailed documentation included in our analysis of alternatives best practices.”

Lamborn and other Colorado lawmakers allege that the former administration improperly influenced the decision and that the Air Force’s basing process did not properly take into account senior military officials’ concerns that the relocation would add years to Space Command efforts to reach “full operational capacity” as soon as possible. Space Command is responsible for providing satellite-based services to the U.S. military and for protecting those assets from foreign threats. 

GAO’s report comes on the heels of another inquiry into Space Command’s basing decision conducted by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General. The IG in a report released May 10 said it found nothing improper in the selection of Redstone Arsenal. 

What happens next is still unclear. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee May 14 that his office will review the findings of GAO and the OIG before finalizing the basing decision.  

Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper met with Kendall May 17 and made the case that the Air Force should keep Space Command at Peterson for national security and cost reasons, the senators said in a statement. “Both the reports from the Department of Defense Inspector General and Government Accountability Office affirm our doubts about the accuracy and credibility of the decision-making process. We underscored those concerns with Secretary Kendall.”