That’s Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers describing discussions he had with the Air Force after they announced that U.S. Space Command would be moving to Huntsville, AL. The lack of transparency around the process has created more questions than answers. This secrecy has lent credence to claims that the move was political, meant to reward red-state Alabama and its delegation for supporting Trump in the 2020 election and in subsequent claims of election fraud.
Suthers agrees: “We believe this was a politically driven decision. In other words, the Trump administration said, ‘We want Alabama,’ and then the Air Force did what was necessary to justify that decision.” (For more details, see our March/April 2021 cover story).
Of course, the Air Force could easily blunt such criticism (and the two ongoing investigations into the decision) by making its data public. The fact that is has not done so raises several questions.
Did the Air Force account fully for the costs of the move? “One of the many flaws in the Air Force analysis is they didn’t even examine the impact on civilian movement. That’s a cost they didn’t even take into account,” says Suthers.
Suthers is right; moving big government agencies is hugely disruptive. When U.S. Space Command was folded into Strategic Command and moved from Colorado Springs to Omaha, some 80% of staff didn’t go. In the early 1950s, plans to move the National Security Agency from Virginia to Kentucky caused so much furor among the civilian workforce that the move was canceled. More recently, the USDA agency moves to Kansas City resulted in resignations from half the staff.
The Air Force has fueled confusion on this point. The Air Force’s Jennifer Miller, who is leading this process, and U.S. Space Command head Gen. James Dickinson have contradicted each other on whether or not personnel will be financially incentivized to move. The Air Force did not include any such costs in its evaluation.
Under intense questioning by Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, Gen. Dickinson also revealed that a secure communications network, comparable to the one enjoyed by the Command at Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs, does not exist in Huntsville and will have to be built—yet another cost that was not included in the Air Force’s review.
Defending its decision, the Air Force has adopted a curious stance: It has selectively refused to project changes in costs over time, saying that considering the future impact of planned changes would be “speculative.” For example, on the cost of living, Suthers asked the Air Force, “Did you take into account the fact that the FBI is moving a big operation to Huntsville [the FBI is moving 3,400 people from Virginia operations]? What is the impact going to be on a city of only 160,000? What about the impact of moving Space Command there? What’s that going to do to cost of living? And they said, ‘Oh, that would be speculative. We couldn’t take that into account.’”
Suthers replied, “I guarantee you there are many economic experts that would be glad to speculate about what the impacts are going to be.” In fact, the Air Force plans billions of dollars in expenditures for weapons systems based on similar predictions. Suthers is baffled: “They acknowledged to me that they took the cost of living in Colorado Springs today and the cost of living in Huntsville today and projected those over 40 years.”
How did the Air Force arrive at its vague “top third/middle third/bottom third” rankings in the following:
Mobility (Airport Service): The Air Force downgraded COS Airport for lack of proximity to affiliate airports, a perceived inability to handle distinguished visitors (DVs) and access to commercial aviation. On the first front, airport aviation director Greg Phillips points out that Peterson AFB and COS Airport are so close they overlap: “Peterson Air Force Base is technically on city property. All the runways are airport owned, operated, and maintained.” Phillips describes Air Force criticisms as ridiculous: “At 7,200 acres, Colorado Springs airport is as large as JFK and LaGuardia combined. With a 13,501-foot runway, three total runways over 8,000 feet, we have the capacity to land anything that flies. We’ve had B-2 and B-52 bombers land at Colorado Springs airport. As recently as February, 2020, we had Air Force One and Air Force Two at the same time.” (Colorado Springs is the second busiest airport in the nation for DVs, behind only Andrews AFB.)
When it came to commercial aviation, the Air Force refused to count 13 new Southwest Airlines daily flights because they weren’t scheduled to start for another month: “Even though we had an agreement, the Air Force considered it ‘speculative,’” says Phillips.
Phillips forwarded a spreadsheet that shows Huntsville had the highest average ticket prices of all the finalists over the last four years. The Air Force admitted to Suthers that Huntsville finished last in fare comparisons: “How can they finish last in that, and we’re virtually unbeatable in the other two categories, and they still beat us?”
Energy Reliability: In his cross-examination, Suthers cited two Institute of Electrical and Engineers benchmarks for energy reliability: the system average interruption frequency index and customer average interruption duration index. Suthers was surprised to learn “they’d never heard of those terms.” By the way, in 2019, COS Utilities (CSU) ranked sixth in the nation in both categories.
When he asked on what they based their evaluation, Suthers was told the Air Force simply considers the Tennessee Valley Authority one of the best grids in the country. “Susceptibility to interruptions and the frequency and duration of those interruptions wasn’t their focus at all.” Suthers notes that “we’re building a whole new transmission station in close proximity, and they said, ‘Oh, we can’t take that into account. That’s speculative.’”
COS Utilities COO Travas Deal detailed multiple ways that CSU hardens its system to provide uninterrupted power to four area bases:
“Redundancy. We have inputs from the north and from the south. We can purchase power or generate our own power. Redundancy fixes the Mother Nature and mechanical failure aspects.
“Our supervisory control and data acquisition system is an isolated, stand-alone system. It’s not tied to our Internet explorers or email. Nobody in China can get on any platform.
“We don’t run equipment to failure. If the manufacturer says we’re going to get 20 years, we may change it at 18 years. We spend a premium to go underground to increase our reliability; 80% of our systems are underground. Electronic components, whether it’s your smartphone or batteries, start getting hot before they fail. Transformers and breakers aren’t any different, so we have technology that looks for heat areas and heat maps.
“Getting generation closer to the end user is also big.” CSU has purchased six massive GE generators to spread around the city, the first two of which arrive in December 2021. “We’re doing a direct feed into Peterson and into Fort Carson. And, at that point, you’ve taken out as many potential failures as possible.”
But, if they weren’t here when the Air Force came calling, perhaps they were “speculative.”
Education: The Air Force used data from an existing study, Support for Military Families (SOMF), which is meant to compare community support for Air Force bases. However, Redstone Arsenal is an Army base. Suthers says, “They acknowledge it wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The Army and Air Force have different systems of evaluating education quality.”
SOMF data was never intended to be used to compare school districts. The National Governor’s Association warns that employing this data “for use as criteria for strategic basing could be deeply problematic” and “…governors, state education agencies, local education agencies, state boards of education, and school leadership should be provided an opportunity to submit supplementary information to inform any analysis of a school under their jurisdiction.” Such information would have noted that, in comparing standardized test scores, the study “removes all results that do not meet a 95% student-participation threshold at the state level.” This means that “…due to the significant opt-out movement starting in 2014–15, Colorado fell below this threshold for all grades 5 and above in both reading/English language arts and math.”
Led by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera’s office, the Colorado Department of Education prepared a detailed response to the Air Force. Primavera says, “Rather than engaging states and communities and stakeholders, the Air Force produced a methodology that really failed to effectively compare communities using standardized data. They didn’t provide the communities the opportunity to submit data and updated information. We felt it was really incomplete data being used to make their decision. They also used relative rankings without additional information or understanding of how those rankings were derived.”
Among other things, the state’s response notes, “Students in the Colorado Springs area score more than one grade level above the U.S. average,” and “school districts supporting Air Force installations and military-connected students rank near the top of each of the rankings. The report also shows that military-connected students in Colorado have exceptionally high graduation rates in Colorado.”
Finally, in November 2020, Colorado voted to provide universal, high-quality preschool for all four-year-olds. Despite identifying preschool as a concern, the Air Force findings make no note of this.
Perhaps they decided this was “speculative” too.