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GAO report: Space Command HQ selection fell short of best practices

The 89-page report identified “significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility” in the revised selection process.

Two famed bases have been re-designated to highlight their connections to the Space Force. Vice President of the United States Mike Pence looks on as the signage is revealed re-designating Patrick Air Force Base to Patrick Space Force Base at a ceremony at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Dec. 9, 2020. (COURTESY 45TH SPACE WING/U.S. AIR FORCE)

The Government Accountability Office determined in a review released Thursday that the Air Force’s selection of Huntsville’s Red Stone Arsenal as the preferred location for U.S Space Command emerged from a revised selection process that fell short of established federal best practices.

The 89-page report identified “significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility” in the revised selection process that gave the “appearance of bias.” but maintained that the revised methods “largely followed its established strategic basing process.” in its report.

“GAO assessed the Air Force’s process against 21 Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) best practices, which are grouped into four characteristics of a high-quality AOA process—comprehensive, well-documented, unbiased, and credible,” The GAO said in a statement released Thursday. “GAO found that the Air Force’s process did not substantially meet 3 of these 4 characteristics, leading to significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility.”

The Air Force’s responded to the report, according to the GAO, stating that “they did not use the AOA best practices because the practices were not required or relevant to basing decisions.”

In a U.S House Armed Services Committee hearing in June of 2021, Former acting Air Force Secretary John Roth explained that the decision to select Huntsville “was the result of our strategic basing process” and noted the cost of construction and maintenance for the headquarters in Huntsville was “significantly less” than Colorado Springs.

“While the January 2021 selection of Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location for U.S. Space Command headquarters was consistent with the Air Force’s analysis, our assessment of the Air Force’s revised selection process and attendant analysis against our AOA best practices identified significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility.” The report said.

In March of 2020, then U.S Secretary of Defense Mark Esper instructed the Air Force to reopen its selection process for U.S Space Command Headquarters, according to the report, roughly two months after Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs was chosen as U.S Space Command’s provisional headquarters.

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The new selection process occurred in three separate phases: A nomination phase, where the Air Force asked the governors of all 50 U.S states to invite prospective communities to self-nominate for selection; an evaluation phase, where Air Force officials called the nominations to those that met certain standards, including proximity to military base, livability, health and child care, and logistical support, among other standards; and a selection phase, where the top candidate locations were further analyzed in lieu of a final designated location.

The final six locations determined by the Air Force during the selection phase were Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville; Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Patrick Space Force Base in Brevard County, Florida; Offutt Air Force Base in Sarpy County, Nebraska; Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Joint Base San Antonio in Texas.

The selection phase occurred between December 2020 and mid-January 2021, according to the report.

The report found that an Air Force analysis placed Redstone Arsenal as the “tentatively” leading candidate for selection as the preferred location, and news from U.S Space Force and U.S Space Command on reductions in personal numbers at the provisional headquarters affecting Peterson Air Force base’s candidacy.

On Jan. 11, 2021, nine days before he left the White House, then U.S President Donald Trump met with acting U.S Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John E. Hyten, and United States Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, among other DOD officials, to determine the preferred location for U.S Space Command, according to the report.

The report also states that the U.S. Space Command Combatant Commander, the U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, and the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told GAO officials in interviews for the report that “they conveyed to meeting participants their position that remaining at Peterson Air Force Base would allow U.S. Space Command to reach full operational capability as quickly as possible.”

The GAO concluded in its report that there “was not 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,” with the report specifically stating this ambiguity included “the role of the then President in making the decision.”

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During an appearance on the Rick & Bubba Show on Aug. 20, 2021., Trump said that he “single-handedly” selected Huntsville as the preferred location, coming a year after a speech on Feb. 20, 2020. in Colorado Springs, where the former President said that Peterson Air Force base was being “strongly considered” for U.S Space Command Headquarters.

Since the official announcement of U.S Space Command’s preferred location, Colorado’s congressional delegation has strongly insisted that the decision was politically motivated— a point maintained in a statement released after the GAO report.

“We have serious concerns about how this conclusion was reached, which contradicts the military leadership’s stated goal of reaching Full Operational Capability as quickly as possible,” the Colorado delegation said. “Our national security should be the deciding factor in basing decisions.”

The delegation urged U.S President Joe Biden to “review the reports’ findings” and make a decision that “prioritizes our national security and mission in space.”

In May, a separate investigation by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General concluded that the Air Force’s decision to select Hunstville as the preferred location for U.S Space Command complied with “complied with law and policy” while recommending that concerns over “Full Operational Capability” raised by U.S Military officials be considered.

“Pleased that the @USGAO Space Command report reiterates what the IG report said last month,” wrote U.S Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, in a Tweet Thursday. “The @USAirForce followed strict criteria when they evaluated and selected Huntsville. I agree that Huntsville was the right pick for the job.”

A final environmental impact examination conducted by the Air Force is currently underway at Redstone Arsenal, with its completion expected by mid-summer.

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John is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter.

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