Biden administration may halt plans to move Space Command to Alabama over state’s abortion law, officials say

Some U.S. officials believe the White House wants to halt plans to move Space Command’s headquarters to Alabama in part due to the state’s restrictive abortion law.

Some defense and congressional officials believe the White House is laying the groundwork to halt plans to move U.S. Space Command’s headquarters to Alabama in part because of concerns about the state’s restrictive abortion law, according to two U.S. officials and one U.S. defense official familiar with the discussions.

“The belief is they are delaying any move because of the abortion issue,” one U.S. official said, referring to the White House.

Another U.S. official said, “This is all about abortion politics.”

Jan. 14, 202305:02

The White House directed the Air Force last December to conduct a review of the process that led to the Trump administration’s decision to move Space Command’s headquarters from Colorado to Huntsville, Alabama. The review was ordered up in the months after Alabama’s law banning nearly all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, went into effect last summer. The law is considered among the most restrictive in the U.S.

It followed two previous, extensive reviews that took place after President Joe Biden took office that found there was no improper political influence on the process that awarded the headquarters to Alabama. Just days before leaving office, Donald Trump had announced Alabama would be home to Spacecom’s headquarters. He later said he was “single-handedly” responsible for the state’s selection over others that were under consideration, but the review did not support that claim.

Biden administration officials have signaled privately to Pentagon officials and lawmakers that they’re looking to reverse the Alabama decision over concerns about operational disruptions that moving Spacecom’s headquarters, which is currently located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, could bring.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, Canadian Minister of National Defense Anita Anand, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck at the Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station facility in Colorado Springs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Canadian National Defense Minister Anita Anand, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck at the Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 7.Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press via AP file

The White House said Alabama’s abortion ban was not a factor in its ongoing review of the decision to build Spacecom’s permanent headquarters there. A White House official said that access to reproductive health care does not weigh in to making the decision about location.

Administration officials said the push not to headquarter Spacecom in Huntsville has nothing to do with Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blocking of at least 234 of Biden’s military nominations in protest against the Pentagon’s abortion policy. Still, one official said, “He’s not helping.” Other officials said the White House does not plan to announce its halting of Spacecom’s move to Alabama until after the standoff with Tuberville over nominees was resolved.

The White House is “trying to delay as much as possible” before announcing a final decision, a third U.S. official said, because “they don’t want to aggravate Tuberville even more.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., at the Capitol on May 2, 2023.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., at the Capitol on May 2.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via AP file

Factors that the military generally considers when deciding the location of a military command headquarters include access to health care, room for growth, access to housing, proximity to airports, cost and overall quality of life.

Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of Space Command, told Congress in March 2022 that Spacecom was on track to be fully operational within three years, wherever the headquarters is located.

Then last month, Dickinson gave an accelerated timeline, saying at a Space Symposium in Colorado that Spacecom would be fully operational later this year, while still headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Some U.S. military commanders also would prefer to keep Spacecom in Colorado, rather than uprooting it and interfering with space operations, according to U.S. officials. The officials cited the war in Ukraine and continuing military competition with China as needing constant attention. “We cannot take our eye off the ball right now,” one U.S. military official said.

Redstone Arsenal

The delay in the move is the latest twist in the yearslong process of finding a permanent Spacecom headquarters. The secretary of the Air Force announced more than two years ago that Spacecom would move from its temporary home in Colorado Springs to a permanent headquarters at a U.S. Army post — Redstone Arsenal — near Huntsville.

Colorado Springs was among the locations considered for a permanent Spacecom headquarters. But U.S. officials said Colorado did not come close to Alabama as a preferred location when the military conducted its search.

The headquarters is expected to draw an estimated 1,400 U.S. service members and their families, contractors and civilian employees, to the Huntsville area. About 64% of Spacecom’s authorized personnel is already in place in Colorado, according to a Spacecom spokesperson.

Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the Space Command, during a Senate hearing on March 8, 2022.
Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, at a Senate hearing on March 8, 2022.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via AP file

Alabama’s abortion law would severely restrict Spacecom personnel’s access to reproductive health care and could potentially hurt efforts to attract personnel.

Redstone Arsenal has Fox Army Health Center, a medical facility for prescriptions and basic services that caters mostly to retirees in the area. More than 98% of the more than 44,000 employees on the base are civilians who live off-post and use civilian medical care, according to a spokesperson. Service members and dependents assigned there would primarily use civilian medical care and would be subject to Alabama’s abortion law. As such they’d be forced to seek abortion and some other reproductive services outside the state.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said recently he was not aware of Biden being involved in a decision of where to base Spacecom. “I have no indication that the president’s going to do anything with regard to that decision,” Kendall said in late March. He said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delegated it to him “and that’s where it stands today.”

But other U.S. officials said the decision was out of the Air Force’s hands.

“This is all about abortion politics,” a second U.S. official said. “This normally would not be a political decision.”

The White House vs. Tuberville

Halting the relocation of Spacecom to Alabama could fuel current tensions between the White House and Tuberville, whose holds on military nominations already include Biden’s pick to serve as chief of staff of the Army. Other major nominations are expected in the coming weeks, including naming the head of Naval Operations and the commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

Unless Tuberville lifts the holds, they’re also likely to include Biden’s nominee to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom the president is expected to name soon, according to two officials familiar with the matter. Biden is expected to nominate Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown to replace Gen. Mark Milley as the next chairman. The officials said the nomination is at the White House for the president’s final approval.   

A spokesperson for Tuberville referred to a letter the senator wrote to The Washington Post in March in which he said, “The military’s decision to place the Space Command at Redstone Arsenal is what is best for national security and for taxpayers. If Mr. Biden overrules the Air Force, it will be Washington at its worst — a president putting politics above plain facts. The Space Command belongs in the Rocket City.”

March 30, 202303:01

In a statement to NBC News, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee warned the Pentagon needs to “stop playing political games.”

“The delayed announcement on SPACECOM basing has been beyond frustrating,” Rep Mike Rogers, R-Ala., wrote. “Over two years ago, the Air Force made the correct decision to go with Huntsville. This was affirmed by the GAO and the DoD Inspector General. That decision was based on two studies — they took into account several factors including quality of life, available infrastructure, and workforce capabilities. Huntsville, Alabama, finished first in both, and the only state that continuously complains came in third and fifth. It is well past time for the Department of Defense along with the Administration to stop playing political games and affirm Huntsville as SPACECOM’s new home.”

After the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, the Defense Department has taken steps to ensure military treatment facilities continue to provide abortion services under its existing guidelines, including in states where abortions are now essentially outlawed with extremely limited exceptions. The department also announced it would help cover travel costs for service members and their dependents who might have to cross state lines to receive abortion services. 

Visitors walk outside the state-operated U.S. Space & Rocket Center which serves as the visitor center for the nearby federally funded NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala., on Jan. 8, 2019.
Visitors walk outside the state-operated U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which serves as the visitor center for the nearby federally funded NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala., on Jan. 8, 2019.David Goldman / AP file

The decision to move Spacecom to Alabama was announced more than a year before that landmark Supreme Court decision, in January 2021. Following allegations that the decision was politically motivated, the Office of Management and Budget ordered a review of the process for selecting Alabama. 

Inspectors general for both the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department completed the review in 2022 and found that the process to select Redstone Arsenal was legitimate. But the GAO report also identified “significant shortfalls in the transparency and credibility” of the process and recommended the Air Force develop guidance for future basing decisions

Trump said in 2021 that he overruled the Pentagon to make it happen. 

Austin tasked Kendall with making the final decision about where to base Spacecom. The White House’s request in December that Kendall conduct a review of the Alabama decision included looking at whether any factors had changed since the original announcement was made, according to two U.S. officials. 

Kendall said he had not yet made a final decision. “We’re trying to take into consideration all possible factors that will affect the final decision,” he said on April 27. 

The U.S. Space Command is the military’s 11th unified combatant command, responsible for defending U.S. interests and strategic advantages in space. The U.S. Space Force is the military’s space service branch, made up of troops called Guardians. It falls under the Department of the Air Force and is headed up by the Chief of Space Operations. Space Force mans, trains and equips Guardians to support global space operations.

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