Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had a tough call to make. Two senior Defense Department leaders were at odds over where to locate the permanent headquarters of U.S. Space Command, a decision at the center of a drawn-out and bitter fight on Capitol Hill laced with parochial politics.
Gen. James Dickinson, the four-star chief of Space Command, recommended keeping the headquarters at its temporary location at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base, to avoid disrupting the schedule for the command to become fully operational in August.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, on the other hand, wanted to move the facility to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., in line with an 11th-hour decision during the Trump administration that was based on the service’s review of six sites.
Austin brought both arguments to President Joe Biden’s desk and asked the commander in chief to settle the debate.
Biden on Monday determined that the command should stay in Colorado, infuriating Alabama lawmakers and touching off a round of accusations that the current president was only seeking to punish the former one.
This story is based on information provided by two U.S. officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations between the Pentagon and the White House. The Associated Press was first to report the split between Dickinson and Kendall.
The disagreement between Dickinson and Kendall had put Austin in an awkward position. The defense secretary had previously backed the original decision to move the command to Alabama, which the Pentagon’s Inspector General determined complied with the law despite Trump’s own claim that he “single-handedly” overruled the Air Force in the waning days of his administration, sending the command to deep-red Alabama.
Upon taking office, Biden directed a review of the decision. Months later, Kendall told lawmakers in March that the headquarters decision was the Air Force secretary’s to make. “Secretary Austin delegated it to me and that’s where it stays today,” Kendall said.
With Dickinson and Kendall split, the defense secretary brought the issue to Biden. He did not make a recommendation to the president either way, the officials said.
On Monday, Biden notified the Pentagon of his decision, agreeing with Dickinson’s argument that moving the command would risk disrupting the military’s ability to respond to space-based threats at a time when adversaries such as China are making gains in the domain.
Despite the disagreement, Kendall said in a statement that he fully supports the president’s decision, and the service will now work “expeditiously” to implement it.
On Capitol Hill, the Alabama delegation promised to fight. Lawmakers accused Biden of playing politics and vowed to investigate the choice.
But National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on Tuesday flatly denied their claims.
“Let me put this as plainly as I can. The deciding factor for President Biden in deciding to keep Space Command in Colorado Springs was operational readiness. Pure and simple,” Kirby said told reporters. “It had everything to do with making sure that Space Command could, in an undisrupted way, continue to operate at peak readiness levels in what is one of the most critical domains across the spectrum of military domains.”
Despite speculation that the decision was a rebuke of Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) for his months-long blockade of military promotions over the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, Kirby said the decision “had nothing to do with” the Alabama senator or “partisan politics.”
Asked specifically whether Alabama’s strict abortion laws played a role in keeping the command in Colorado, one of the U.S. officials said no. The official noted the Pentagon’s policy of reimbursing troops who have to travel to seek reproductive healthcare, the very rule that Tuberville is protesting.
“Nothing is changing in terms of our footprint inside these states,” the official said, explaining that the Pentagon is not moving troops out of red states.
Although it’s not unprecedented for the commander in chief to weigh in on basing decisions, it’s certainly unusual. U.S. officials say there is no tension between Biden and his Pentagon chief, and it’s not indicative of a larger pattern of weighing in more on Pentagon issues.
But the decision marks the second time in just a few weeks that the president has intervened in affairs normally in the Pentagon’s purview.
Last month, Biden named Adm. Lisa Franchetti to be the Navy’s top officer and first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, against Austin’s advice. Days later, the president overruled Austin on another prominent national security issue: sharing evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine with the International Criminal Court.