WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) during a hearing Sept. 28 grilled military officials over their role in the Biden administration’s decision to keep U.S. Space Command’s headquarters in Colorado.
President Biden in July overturned the Trump administration’s recommendation to move U.S. Space Command headquarters from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama. The Pentagon said the president’s decision was based on the advice of military leaders that the relocation would be disruptive and undermine military readiness.
Testifying at the hearing were Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, U.S. Space Command’s commander Gen. James Dickinson and the chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force Gen. Chance Saltzman.
Rogers and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) argued that the Biden administration’s rationale for stopping the move — that it undermines military readiness — doesn’t hold up because it’s the U.S. Space Force, not U.S. Space Command, that is responsible for the readiness of forces.
“Let me be clear, this is not and has never been about readiness,” Rogers charged during a contentious exchange with Dickinson.
Rogers suggested Dickinson had made contradictory statements about whether moving Space Command would impact readiness. At the hearing, Dickinson said the relocation could create workforce disruptions because many of the civilians are not likely to move. Space Command headquarters has about 1,400 employees.
In response, Rogers said the Air Force had proposed ways to mitigate workforce issues, such as hiring contractors to fill gaps until new workers could be hired in Alabama.
The readiness argument is a cover “so the president can try to endear himself to a purple state prior to next year’s election,” said Rogers.
Rogers cited written correspondence from Saltzman stating that the location of Space Command would have no impact on the readiness of the Space Force.
As a military service, the Space Force is responsible to organize, train and equip forces. Space Command is a combatant command that was activated in August 2019 to oversee military operations in the space domain.
“So this idea that moving Space Command is going to affect operational readiness is just fabricated,” said Rogers.
The fight over Space Command is about to enter its third year.
The ranking member of the HASC, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), described the turn of events on Space Command as a “horrible process.”
This has dragged on for too long, said Smith. “We need to hear more about how that happened and how to make sure that it never happens again.
“Yes, Alabama won the initial competition,” said Smith. The criteria for the original selection of Huntsville — that it’s less expensive and ranks higher in quality of life factors — however, has to be balanced against the fact that “the people at Space Command don’t want to move,” Smith added. “Moving is a pain. I think that’s what it comes down to.”
Kendall up until last year was prepared to back the move to Huntsville, but said he now supports Biden’s decision because the president is the commander in chief.
“President Biden exercises authority as commander in chief and chief executive to make the final decision to locate the permanent headquarters of U.S. Space Command in Colorado,” said Kendall.
“I fully support the president’s decision,” he said.
Kendall in May 2022 was directed by the secretary of defense to review the basing decision. The main takeaway from that review, said Kendall, was that “Huntsville was lower cost while remaining in Colorado posed the lowest operational risk.”
Kendall said Dickinson had concluded that moving the headquarters location would “greatly reduce readiness and impose risk to the mission of the force.”
“Ultimately, my view was the decision came down to a judgment about the operational risk associated with relocating versus the reduced costs in Huntsville,” said Kendall.
His earlier assessment had been that the projected cost savings “together with the availability of potential mitigation measures would outweigh the operational risks.”
But as combatant commander, “General Dickinson assesses these considerations quite differently,” Kendall said.
Now that the president made a decision, said Kendall, “we are prepared to move forward with the implementation.”
Concerns about politicizing basing decisions
A number of lawmakers at the hearing said they were disappointed that a simple basing decision had become so highly politicized.
Kendall said he had been involved in about a dozen basing decisions during his tenure, but Space Command was an unusual case. He noted that it started out as a standard Air Force basing process, but it took a turn in 2020 when then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper directed a new approach and solicited bids from states.
The fact that both presidents Trump and Biden got directly involved is unusual for these types of base selections that typically are handled by the military services, Kendall said.
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) said Space Command’s contentious back and forth “opened a Pandora’s box” as the location of military bases should not be so highly politicized.
Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) pointed out that as commanders in chief, both Trump and Biden had the authority to direct a combatant command relocation. But the way Space Command was handled sets a precedent for future administrations to use military bases to reward political allies.
Rogers said he will ask for another DoD inspector general investigation. “In the meantime we will suspend funding for any construction in Colorado for a permanent Space Command headquarters.”
The president is the commander in chief, he said, “but Congress gets to decide what we’re going to authorize and what we’re going to fund.”