Biden, reversing Trump, won’t move military’s Space Command to Alabama

President Biden has decided against relocating the headquarters of U.S. Space Command to Alabama, senior officials said Monday, upending a controversial decision by his predecessor as the Trump administration was coming to an end.

The organization, overseen by a four-star general, was to be moved from Peterson Air Force Base, outside of Colorado Springs, to Redstone Arsenal, an Army installation in Huntsville, Ala. Biden decided that doing so would be too disruptive to military readiness, officials said, siding with Colorado lawmakers who have protested the plan for more than two years.

Critics had said that the Trump administration’s decision was rushed through as the former president left office and appeared intended to reward a deeply conservative state by moving an influential military headquarters out of one that leans Democratic. The command, and its estimated 1,400 jobs, is expected to yield nearly $1 billion in annual economic spending, officials in Colorado have said previously.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that Biden’s decision was made “following a deliberate evaluation” and after consultation with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Army Gen. James H. Dickinson, who leads Space Command, all support the decision, Ryder said.

“Locating Headquarters U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs ultimately ensures peak readiness in the space domain for our nation during a critical period,” Ryder said.

Space Command was established in the 1980s to oversee the military’s vast array of satellites and coordinate with other high-level headquarters. In 2002, it was merged into U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska before being reestablished in 2019, as moves by Russia and China forced U.S. officials to assign higher priority to a domain where the Pentagon once had little competition.

A senior defense official and a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, said that Dickinson recommended keeping Space Command in Colorado, while Kendall recommended allowing the move to Huntsville to go forward. Austin presented both viewpoints to Biden, the officials said. The senior defense official declined to say whether the defense secretary favored one recommendation over the other.

Kendall, in a statement, said the Air Force “will now work expeditiously to implement the decision.” Space Command is expected to reach full operational capability in Colorado next month, officials said.

Had the command been uprooted and relocated to Alabama, its readiness would be “degraded” for years, potentially until the mid 2030s, the senior administration official said. Dickinson, the person said, explained that such a move would be detrimental as the United States seeks to keep pace with China in space. Biden, the official said, was “sufficiently convinced” of that argument.

Biden’s choice, first reported by the Associated Press, was cheered by lawmakers from Colorado.

“Today’s decision restores integrity to the Pentagon’s basing process and sends a strong message that national security and the readiness of our Armed Forces drive our military decisions,” said Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), in a joint statement with Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.). “Colorado is the rightful home for U.S. Space Command, and our state will continue to lead America in space for years to come.”

Hickenlooper added that Biden’s decision “firmly rejects the idea that politics — instead of national security — should determine basing decisions central to our national security.”

Republicans were outraged. Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pledged to continue investigating the matter to determine whether the Biden administration “intentionally misled” lawmakers about its “deliberate taxpayer-funded manipulation of the selection process.” He blamed the decision on “far-left politics” that he said had nothing to do with national security.

The decision comes amid a worsening feud between the administration and another Alabama Republican, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who has placed a long-term hold on the promotion of hundreds of generals and admirals in an unrelated dispute over a Pentagon policy that reimburses certain expenses incurred by U.S. service members who travel out of state to receive an abortion. The policy took effect last year, after a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that for nearly 50 years protected the right to terminate a pregnancy.

In a statement, Tuberville accused Biden of having politicized “what had been a fair and objective competition — not because the facts had changed, but because the political party of the sitting President had changed.”

The decision to bypass Alabama and other conservative states “looks like blatant patronage politics, and it sets a dangerous precedent that military bases are now to be used as rewards for political supporters rather than for our security,” Tuberville said, adding, “This is absolutely not over.”

Precisely how the Trump administration came to support the move to Huntsville is still a mystery. At the time, senior U.S. officials said that influential people with ties to Alabama, including outgoing Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R), had pitched the idea to Trump directly. Tuberville, a Trump supporter who had not yet been sworn into office, also favored the move, those people said.

A Government Accountability Office report released a year ago said that, under Trump, the Air Force had “largely followed its established strategic basing process” to determine the long-term home of Space Command. Beginning in March 2020, however, the Air Force implemented a revised process that fully or substantially met only seven of 21 best practices for deciding were the command would be located. The Air Force responded by stating that the service did not think those steps were relevant or required, the report said.

Former officials who attended a key meeting Jan. 11, 2021, told the GAO that there were “different opinions” within the Trump administration about “the best location for the headquarters.” There was no consensus among those interviewed about who, ultimately, made the decision to select Redstone Arsenal, the report said.

Senior Air Force officials who attended that meeting told GAO investigators that they were prepared to discuss both Peterson and Redstone Arsenal as options. The report said that Barbara Barrett, the Air Force secretary at the time, told investigators that “she wanted to ensure that any decision would stand up to scrutiny and not be reversed,” and that she “viewed it as her mission to make a fair decision that was not political or based on advocacy.”

A separate investigation by the Defense Department inspector general found last year that the Air Force process leading to the selection of Huntsville was “reasonable.” The report also recommended that the Pentagon establish policy and procedures for implementing basing actions for similar headquarters in the future.

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