President Donald Trump has awarded U.S. Space Command to Huntsville, Ala., in a move Wednesday that several Pentagon insiders and lawmakers say bypassed the military’s top pick of Colorado Springs, the unit's current home, because of political considerations.
It’s a decision that Colorado lawmakers say they will ask President-elect Joe Biden to overturn and has caused Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Trump loyalist, to break with the administration. The move also will likely kick off a congressional probe into how the decision was reached.
“I am extremely disappointed. I have never been so disappointed in my whole life,” Lamborn said. “I believe, based on inside information, that politics must have played a role. By any standard, Colorado would come out on top of any competition.”
Lamborn said he and other Colorado lawmakers plan an appeal to Biden to overturn the decision as soon as he takes office next week. The congressman said the Alabama move was likely made with “bad advice from political advisers.”
Dirk Draper, CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, said "If ever there was a Trumped up decision, this feels like one." The chamber led the local effort to keep the command in Colorado Springs, including printing red T-shirts for one of Trump's visits here promoting Colorado Springs as the best location for the command.
An earlier Air Force decision will keep the command in Colorado Springs until at least 2026 while the decision to move it plays out. The White House didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The decision came after Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett traveled to the White House this week to tell Trump the military had chosen Colorado Springs after a new presidentially ordered process that tossed out an earlier decision to keep the command, its 1,400 airmen and thousands of civilian workers here.
Trump, officers familiar with the briefing said, instead ordered the command to head to Alabama, a state that includes six lawmakers who objected to certifying the presidential election results last week and delivered Trump a Senate win, with Republican Tommy Tuberville unseating Democrat Doug Jones.
“This is just beyond belief,” said one officer familiar with the decision who spoke with The Gazette on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from the administration.
The Air Force on Wednesday defended the Huntsville pick.
"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 news release.
The service said other sites including Colorado "will remain reasonable alternative locations for the U.S. Space Command Headquarters," if Alabama doesn't pass an environmental review.
The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC said it had independently determined that Trump bypassed a military recommendation for Colorado Springs to pick Alabama.
“I am extremely disappointed by this development,” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said in a statement. “I have said from the beginning, that if this was a merit decision, Colorado Springs would prevail. It is not in the interest of national security and the American taxpayer to move Space Command.
"We made an extremely strong case for the city, and we had every indication that the Air Force was impressed by the community commitments we made in support of Space Command’s future. My concern is that politics played a significant role in this result. 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 Gov. Jared Polis said he would work to overturn the decision.
“Reports that the in-depth military process found Colorado Springs to be the best location for military readiness and cost and recommended Colorado to the president only to be overruled for politically motivated reasons are deeply concerning,” Polis said in a statement. “This move threatens jobs, could cause serious economic damage and upend the lives of hundreds of military and civilian families that were counting on U.S Space Command staying at home in Colorado Springs, as well as harm military readiness.”
Moving the command to Huntsville would require major construction projects to house it, and new infrastructure to be built, including satellite ground stations and other equipment.
Lamborn said he’s concerned that the move could make the nation less safe while hitting taxpayers in the wallet for billions of dollars.
“The Pentagon liaison I talked with admitted that, operationally, this will cause disruption in a major combatant command and admitted in the short term this will be much more expensive,” Lamborn said.
The Pentagon has spent more than $350 million on Colorado space infrastructure in recent years and is breaking ground on a new $800 million space operations center at Schriever Air Force Base.
City Councilman Don Knight said he was shocked and disappointed by the news.
"My jaw hit the floor," said Knight, a retired Air Force colonel.
He said he could see no technical reason why Colorado Springs should not be the permanent home for the command.
"I spent four years in the Pentagon; politics and logic just don't go together," he said.
However, since the decision was announced at the tail end of Trump's term there is a chance to reverse the decision.
"I would say there is hope for us, maybe more than usual," Knight said.
Space Command grew out of expanding evidence that America’s rivals would target military satellites in a future war. It’s a year older than the Space Force, a year-old service branch created to house the military’s satellite troops.
The command, which oversees military operations of all service branches in orbit, was re-established and housed in Colorado Springs in 2019, kicking off an initial Pentagon process that picked the Pikes Peak region as the unit’s home over Huntsville, another finalist. Many in Colorado Springs expected Trump to make the Colorado location permanent when he came to the Air Force Academy to deliver the school’s commencement address in 2019.
But it soon became apparent that the Pentagon’s initial process was crumbling in the face of political pressures. States including Florida and Texas didn’t make the list of finalists, and top leadership shifted at the Pentagon, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper taking over after Jim Mattis resigned and Barrett was picked to succeed Heather Wilson.
In February, during a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Trump said he would personally make the decision.
“I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space (Command) as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it," Trump told the crowd. "I will be making a decision by the end of the year."
In May, the Pentagon formally restarted the process to pick Space Command’s home while provisionally giving it to Colorado Springs through 2026. While local leaders feared the new process would get wrapped up in politics, the Pentagon promised to make its call based on military needs.
Cities in 26 states joined the fray, but the Air Force again came up with six finalists, with Colorado Springs leading the pack and Huntsville again making the cut. So many places wanted the command because it comes with thousands of civilian jobs and billions of dollars in potential military contracts.
Draper said the command alone has an economic impact of of more than $450 million per year.
Tatiana Bailey, director of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Economic Forum, said the possible loss of the command wouldn't throw Colorado Springs into a recession, but is a missed opportunity.
"There is no question that the benefit of Space Command is massive and is only going to grow," she said. "A lot of contractors have come here because of Space Command and may move that expertise to Alabama."
“I am appalled, but not surprised, that yet again this president has demonstrated that he places politics over national security,” Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in an email. “If it is true that the Air Force recommended Colorado and Alabama was selected for political reasons by the president, this decision must be reviewed. I will engage with the incoming administration to ensure that a full review of the process is conducted and that our nation’s security is prioritized.”
Billing itself as “Rocket City,” Huntsville is home to Army rocket research programs and missile defense studies. Among Huntsville’s advantages are a high-tech workforce and low-cost housing.
It has a long heritage in space, housing some of the earliest military rocket programs in America.
Colorado Springs has a long space history, too, with control over the military’s constellation of satellites headquartered here. And the voice for troops working in military satellite programs, the Space Force Association, gave the city its endorsement as home for Space Command.
The new round of reviews also came with a new wrinkle: For the first time, the Air Force would consider incentive packages from cities seeking the command.
Huntsville reportedly offered incentives including new housing for top Space Command officers.
Colorado Springs came up with a mammoth package of incentives including 1,500 acres of city-owned land to expand Peterson Air Force Base, utility discounts, tax breaks for construction work along with private donations for a new child development center at the base, a golf course for its families and a major investment in space education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Suthers said the incentives were worth more than $130 million, dwarfing offerings by other finalists for the command.
The mayor said he wants a full accounting of the president's role in the decision.
Amid the most fractious political year in decades, Space Command was a topic that drew support from lawmakers of all stripes across the state. Republicans and Democrats leaned on the Pentagon and the White House to keep the command here.
Polis climbed aboard Air Force One in February during the president’s Colorado Springs stop to lobby Trump to keep the command here, and city leaders, state lawmakers and Colorado’s entire congressional delegation rallied to the cause with letters to the Pentagon and White House.
Several Pentagon officers and others say Colorado Springs again became the military’s top pick to house the command, but President Trump in his role as commander-in-chief made the final call.
Moving the command doesn’t mean Colorado Springs will suddenly be bereft of space assets. The town is home to the bulk of troops in the new Space Force and controls most of the military’s satellites. It is also home to the Space Force’s Space Operations Command, which carries out most missions for U.S. Space Command.
Also in Colorado Springs is the National Space Defense Center, a headquarters that brings together the military and intelligence agencies for war planning and intelligence sharing.
None of that is moving.
Space Command and its 1,400 troops, though, could be gone by 2026.