WASHINGTON — The House released draft legislation on Monday that puts the squeeze on the Pentagon to arrive at a long-overdue decision as to where to locate the Space Command headquarters following a two-and-a-half-year showdown between Alabama and Colorado.
The draft text of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act would halt military construction on the temporary Space Command headquarters in Colorado Springs until Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall submits a report justifying its final location. It would also freeze half of Kendall’s travel budget until Congress receives the justification and decision.
The Alabama delegation has a powerful ally in House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, who took charge of the committee this year after Republicans won the House. Rogers’ staff on the Armed Services Committee noted that the Defense Department continues to build Space Command infrastructure at the Colorado Springs location amid a review of the 2020 decision to place it in Huntsville, Alabama.
“We found out through the process over the last two years while we’re waiting for the Air Force actually make a decision is that the Space Command and the Air Force have been signing leases and building out infrastructure in Colorado,” a senior congressional aide told reporters on a press call, speaking anonymously to discuss the draft legislation in detail. “The chairman wants the Air Force to make a decision.”
Two years ago, during the final days of the Trump administration, the Air Force announced Huntsville, Alabama — the site of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and home to the Missile Defense Agency — would serve as the new location for Space Command headquarters, moving it from Colorado Springs.
The decision infuriated Colorado’s congressional delegation, who asked the Air Force to review the decision. Several Colorado Democrats argued it was an act of political retaliation because President Joe Biden won the swing state in the 2020 election.
A May 2022 report by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General found the Air Force followed all relevant laws and policies when selecting Huntsville. But the report also found the rules themselves may have been flawed, resulting in a less than optimal decision.
A separate June 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office found the Air Force did not follow best practices when making the basing decision.
Kendall is reviewing both reports’ findings, but the final basing decision for Space Command headquarters was expected months ago.
“The chairman’s view is why should you be using taxpayer dollars to build up all this infrastructure when the Air Force made a decision that has been reviewed by two different reviews and found that Huntsville, Alabama won — and won fairly,” said the congressional aide.
NBC News reported last month that the Biden administration may halt plans to move the headquarters to Alabama in part because of the state’s new law making abortion a felony punishable up to 99 years in prison for physicians.
U.S. Space Command General James Dickinson met with both states’ congressional delegations last week. Half of the Ohio delegation also threw their hat into the ring last week with a last-minute letter to Kendall and Biden asking them to put the headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in their state.
Deterring China and Russia
Aside from the Space Command dispute, the congressional aide said lawmakers sought to “focus on deterring China” when drafting the $886 billion defense authorization bill. The aide noted that includes $9.7 billion in funding for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
It would also provide $300 million in FY24 funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which allows the Pentagon to issue new weapons contacts to send to Kyiv. Report language accompanying the draft bill directs that the Biden administration must use $80 million of that funding for long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS.
Ukraine has repeatedly asked for ATACMS and President Joe Biden has come under pressure from Rogers and other lawmakers to send them. However, the Biden administration remains concerned about the impact sending ATACMS could have on U.S. stockpiles and the potential for using them to strike Russian territory, despite Kyiv’s promises to only use them in Ukraine.
The report language also directs Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to brief the Armed Services Committee “on outstanding or denied requests for support” made by Ukraine.
Additionally, the bill directs Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to deliver Congress a report on deepening security cooperation with the Baltic states.
The Armed Services subcommittees are slated to begin marking up their portions of the bill on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. The full committee is scheduled to begin marking up the full FY24 National Defense Authorization Act on June 21 — the same day the Senate holds a markup on its version of the bill.
The House is expected to vote on the legislation in July.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.