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Trump administration decides on Alabama as new home for Space Command

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/13/2021 Ashley Parker, Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe

The Trump administration has selected Huntsville, Ala., as the preferred site of a new headquarters for U.S. Space Command, a decision that defied expectations and prompted questions about whether President Trump intervened to reward political allies.

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in a statement Wednesday that Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was the service’s choice from among six potential sites for the permanent location for the command, which was established as an independent organization in 2019 to address future challenges in space.

“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,” the Air Force said in a statement.

The decision follows a lobbying effort among six final contenders, including Colorado Springs, the command’s current home. Other cities considered include Albuquerque, Bellevue, Neb., Cape Canaveral, Fla., and San Antonio, the Air Force said. A final decision on the command’s home is expected in 2023, but preferred locations are rarely later rejected.

The command will include troops from each branch of the Defense Department, as Russia’s and China’s operations in space increasing cause the Pentagon concern.

News of the administration’s decision to move the command came despite expectations it would remain at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs.

The city’s mayor, John Suthers (R), said in a statement that he is “extremely disappointed by this development,” and that he had “every indication” that the Air Force was impressed by the city’s commitments to support Space Command.

“My concern is that politics played a significant role in this result,” Suthers said. “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.”

In a joint statement, Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) decried the decision.

“In the spring of 2019, the Air Force named six finalists for the permanent home of Space Command — four of them in Colorado,” they said. “For reasons that were never clear, in the spring of 2020, the Air Force announced a subsequent process that eventually resulted in six new finalists, this time including only one in Colorado. And now, just as President Trump is leaving office, Colorado was not selected despite reports that it was the Air Force’s top choice.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said that it seemed like the administration was rushing to reach a decision before the end of Trump’s time in office and that the timing of announcement “should rightly lead to serious questions of political impropriety.”

“After postponing the original site visit to Albuquerque last December, the Air Force evaluation team collected data on Albuquerque’s candidacy less than a week ago,” Heinrich said in a statement. “I don’t see how it is possible to properly evaluate one of the Air Force’s final candidates in less than a week and come to a decision on something so important.”

The Air Force evaluated each city’s ability to host Space Command headquarters based on factors related to the mission, infrastructure capacity, community support and cost to the Defense Department, said Ann Stefanek, a service spokeswoman.

“The Secretary considered all input, feedback, staff analysis, best military advice, changes in the strategic environment, and what evaluation criteria is the most important,” she said in a statement.

Stefanek declined to comment on whether Air Force officials recommended Huntsville in those consultations but said that Barrett received feedback from senior U.S. officials, including Trump.

An Air Force official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, denied that Trump intervened in the decision but acknowledged that Barrett finalized her decision after a meeting with Trump and other White House officials on Monday.

According to individuals familiar with the process, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) was a major player in the decision-making.

Cliff Sims, a senior adviser to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and an Alabama native, also advocated for the move with both the White House and the Pentagon, the individuals said.

The decision also represents a boon for lawmakers who have supported Trump’s quest to overturn his loss in the presidential election, including newly elected Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.).

“It is undeniable at this point that Trump loves Tuberville and Mo Brooks, and this was a big ask from both of them that was important,” said a senior administration official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Shelby, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense, praised the move to Alabama in a statement.

“This is outstanding news, not only for our state but also for the Air Force,” Shelby said. “This long-awaited decision by the Air Force is a true testament to all that Alabama has to offer. Huntsville is the right pick for a host of reasons — our skilled workforce, proximity to supporting space entities, cost-effectiveness, and quality of life, among other things.”

Donald Trump, Mike Pence are posing for a picture: President Trump watches as the flag for U.S. Space Command is unfurled at the White House on Aug. 29, 2019. © Carolyn Kaster/AP President Trump watches as the flag for U.S. Space Command is unfurled at the White House on Aug. 29, 2019.
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