Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The U.S. Air Force has chosen Huntsville, Alabama, over five other cities, including Albuquerque, to locate the new U.S. Space Command.
Acting Air Force Undersecretary Shon J. Manasco told Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., in a phone call Wednesday morning about the decision.
Albuquerque was one of six sites in the running for the Space Command, which also included cities in Nebraska, Colorado, Texas and Florida.
In an official announcement Wednesday afternoon, the Air Force said Huntsville compared more favorably against the other states in providing a large qualified workforce, high-quality schools, superior infrastructure capacity and low initial recurring costs. Alabama also offered a facility to support the Space Command headquarters at no cost while a permanent facility is constructed.
After speaking with Manasco, however, Heinrich said he was very disturbed by the Air Force process that culminated in choosing Alabama, which he said seemed like it was rushed to reach a final decision before President Donald Trump leaves office next week.
“I’m utterly disappointed with this process,” Heinrich told the Journal. “I don’t think it (Huntsville) was a logical place to choose for the Space Command. It seems clear to me that this was the least deliberative Air Force basing decision I’ve been a part of.”
Heinrich and the entire New Mexico congressional delegation have lobbied to locate the Space Command in Albuquerque after Mayor Tim Keller’s administration entered the competitive bidding process last spring to land the new base of operations here with backing from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“When the Trump administration announced its criteria for the new home of U.S. Space Command, it promised a ‘comprehensive and transparent’ screening process,” Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said in a statement. “Today’s selection raises questions about the integrity of that process, questions I intend to bring up with the incoming administration. New Mexico offered an unparalleled package: A vibrant space industry, key military installations, two national labs, protected airspace, and a highly-qualified workforce. The Air Force owes the residents of New Mexico and other finalist cities a full and detailed accounting of how it reached its decision.”
The Space Command is separate from the new U.S. Space Force, which Trump authorized in December 2019 as the sixth branch of the U.S. military. The Space Command is a unified combatant command that will oversee all military space operations, whether that’s deterring aggression or defeating adversaries in an attack.
The bidding process started with 50 locations in 26 states under consideration. The Air Force narrowed that last summer to 31 locations, including Albuquerque, which was then selected as one of six finalists in November.
But Heinrich said the Air Force appeared to truncate the decision-making process in the past six weeks.
“In just one month and a half, it went from feeling like a methodical, typical Air Force decision to suddenly a very rushed process to get to a decision before the end of the current administration,” Heinrich said.
Air Force officials held an online meeting with city and state representatives Dec. 20 to discuss Albuquerque’s proposal. A group of officials from the Air Force Strategic Basing Office last Thursday had an on-site tour of Kirtland Air Force Base, where the Space Command would be located if it came to New Mexico.
“That seems extremely rushed to have an on-site visit last Thursday and on (the following) Wednesday call me with a decision already made,” Heinrich said. “That’s very concerning.”
Heinrich said his staff will “dig through” the process documentation to review how the decision was made. If the evidence doesn’t justify the site selection, he will urge President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, which takes office next week, to reevaluate the Air Force process and decision.
“It all needs to be completely transparent,” Heinrich said. “… If the facts that led to the conclusion of this process are more political than deliberative, then maybe it would be appropriate to reopen it. I can’t promise that, but if the Air Force doesn’t have the documentation to support its decision, then I would urge the new administration to reevaluate it.”
Sherman McCorkle, the founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, which assisted in Albuquerque’s efforts to lure the command center to New Mexico, said he still thinks that Kirtland met the criteria better than the other finalists.
“I think the exercise in and of itself was worthwhile for the fact that it educated people in the Pentagon and elected officials about the attributes of Kirtland Air Force Base,” McCorkle said. “There could be opportunities in the future where we could use this work for leverage for future opportunities. What those future opportunities might be, I’m not sure.”
In a statement, Mayor Keller called the decision “politically motivated” and said the city would join the state’s congressional delegation and ask the incoming administration to reevaluate the decision.
Gov. Lujan Grisham will also support those efforts.
“This represented an enormous potential opportunity for our state, and I’m certainly disappointed with the decision,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal in an email. “I would like a complete assessment from federal decision-makers about why New Mexico, with all of the incredible resources we bring to the table, was not chosen, and I look forward to working with our congressional delegation to explore whether and to what degree we can still secure significant Space Command assets for New Mexico.”