Colorado Pushes Back on Decision to Base U.S. Space Command in Alabama

Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal is the preferred new home of U.S. Space Command, the Air Force said Jan. 13, signaling a major move from the longtime center of military space operations in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Redstone is a key Army installation in Huntsville, a defense-heavy area known as “Rocket City” for its involvement with NASA. After the Air Force vetted several cities as prospective SPACECOM headquarters locations, it said the city scores highest on “factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense,” the service said in a release.

“Huntsville compared favorably across more of these factors than any other community, providing a large, qualified workforce, quality schools, superior infrastructure capacity, and low initial and recurring costs,” said the Air Force, which was in charge of the basing decision. “Redstone Arsenal offered a facility to support the headquarters, at no cost, while the permanent facility is being constructed.”

SPACECOM was created in August 2019 to manage daily operations of the satellites, radars, and other space-related assets that enable communications, track missile launches, and more. Twenty-four states pitched their municipalities as ideal spots for the command of around 1,500 employees, after the Pentagon restarted a nationwide search to broaden its options in early 2020.

But critics of the Huntsville decision are crying foul, saying President Donald J. Trump intervened in the decision. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that the announcement followed a White House visit by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett this week to tell Trump that DOD would go with Colorado.

“Sources at the White House and the Air Force have confirmed the Air Force’s site selection team recommended the permanent headquarters be located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs,” said Lisa Landes, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. “President Trump ignored their recommendation and selected Redstone Arsenal.”

Colorado’s two Democratic senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, pushed back on the search process as a whole, saying it was never clear why the Air Force vetted locations a second time despite picking six finalists in spring 2019. They pledged to get the incoming Biden administration to review the decision.

“It would be wholly appropriate, and we would request, that Congress and the Biden administration direct the U.S. Air Force to provide full details regarding the recommendations it made and make public the role President Trump played in this decision,” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers added.

They defended the deep-seated space expertise in the Colorado Springs area, which also features Space Force headquarters at Peterson, Schriever Air Force Base, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the Army’s Fort Carson. It wasn’t enough to seal the deal, however.

“One concern was that Peterson has taken on several additional missions in recent years and is filling up,” POLITICO reported.

POLITICO said the Air Force chose Huntsville in consultation with the White House, senior military commanders, congressional defense committees, and others.

“It was a deliberative, informative discussion, everybody in the room got to express their thoughts and their recommendations,” John W. Henderson, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment, and energy, told the publication. “I don’t feel like anything was inappropriately pushed in our direction.”

Alabama saw $16 billion in defense spending in fiscal 2019, the ninth-highest in the nation, the Defense Department said Jan. 13. Its military interests are defended by powerful lawmakers including Republicans Sen. Richard Shelby, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers, the new top GOP member on the House Armed Services Committee.

Shelby praised the decision, noting that Redstone’s industrial base is comprised of more than 400 aerospace and defense technology companies located in the “second-largest research park in the country.”

“Our state has long provided exceptional support for our military and their families as well as a rich and storied history when it comes to space exploration,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) added. “This combination only enhances the outstanding relationships with the 65 diverse federal agencies on Redstone Arsenal, not to mention the growing presence of the FBI and other federal installations.”

Despite the resources available in the Huntsville area, some criticized the decision as fiscally faulty. The Air Force did not state the comparative cost of moving SPACECOM to Alabama and building new facilities versus keeping the enterprise in Colorado. 

“This will be a colossal waste of money,” said Todd Harrison, an aerospace and defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I hope it is one of the first things the new Pentagon leadership will reexamine once they are in place.”

While the Department of the Air Force plans to make its final decision in spring 2023, the announcement means Redstone has only to pass an environmental review to formally secure SPACECOM HQ.

Peterson is expected to remain as the provisional headquarters for the Defense Department’s newest combatant command until 2026. It’s unclear how the organization will move its employees across the country over time as Redstone Arsenal becomes equipped to welcome them.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 13 to include comments from Colorado officials.