GAO report criticizes decision making behind Space Command’s move to Huntsville, AL

GAO doesn't opine on whether Huntsville was the right or wrong decision. But the office says the Air Force made some fundamental missteps

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The Air Force’s decision to pick Huntsville, Alabama, as the new headquarters of U.S. Space Command has been controversial from the start. And a new review by the Government Accountability Office says the selection process had a lot of problems. GAO doesn’t opine on whether Huntsville was the right or wrong decision. But the office says the Air Force made some fundamental missteps when it deviated from its own base selection framework. Instead, the ad hoc version it used for the Space Command selection had serious credibility and transparency problems. Elizabeth Field is director of Defense Capability and Management Issues at GAO. And she joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more about the findings.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: Elizabeth, thanks for doing this. And before we dive into the bulk of the report, I want to set this up a bit by just pointing out to listeners that there is kind of two different versions of this report. The publicly releasable one does not have as much detail in it, because the Defense Department considered a lot of those facts and figures to be privileged and did not want them in the final report. First of all, how unusual is that in the context of this sort of information, and then maybe you could describe a little bit to us what’s not in the final report?

Elizabeth Field: Sure. It’s it’s not that unusual for us to issue two versions of a report, one that is sensitive or even classified, that is available to members of Congress, and then one that is fully unclassified and available to the public. And it’s certainly not unusual. And in a situation like this one, where we were looking at a very sensitive strategic basing decision for the department to designate information as being sensitive. In this case, some of the information that we have had to omit from the report includes things like the number and names of candidates that the Air Force would have considered under an amended enterprise definition. Certainly some of the specific numerical candidate scores and rankings, that the Air Force concluded where their rankings during part of the process have been omitted. And also certain input to some deliberations that happened before a meeting at the White House in January 2021, that we talked about in our report. So those are just a few examples.

Jared Serbu: Got it. I just wanted to make that clear before we dig into the meat here. Okay. And then as far as the meat, essentially, as I understand what’s going on here is Space Command basically borrowed the Air Force’s strategic basing process and then sort of partway through the Air Force modified that process, essentially, at the direction of the Secretary of Defense. Have I got that about right?

Elizabeth Field: Pretty much. So the Air Force does have an instruction. It’s called an Air Force instruction, that guides strategic basic decisions. And it was a process that it was following for the most part, up until about March 2020. Then to your point, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper directed the Air Force to reopen the process and revise the process to model the Army’s future command basing process that it had used. I should note that that process was also not consistent with an existing policy. So there really wasn’t policy that the Air Force was or could follow at that point. The memo from Secretary Esper essentially superseded the Air Force instruction.

Jared Serbu: But I think the point here is that the Air Force could still have built a process or followed a process that used all of the best practices that GAO’s identified whenever you’re doing any kind of analysis of alternatives. And you found some serious shortcomings there. You want to briefly take us through what those were?

Elizabeth Field: Sure, well, and first, I want to very much affirm your question about whether the Air Force still could have followed best practices? And the answer is absolutely. And in fact, that’s the reason that GAO created these best practices back in 2016. We recognize that there was not a broadly recognized set of guidelines that federal government agencies or even private sector entities could use to help consider different options and alternatives when they were faced with a question like the one that the Air Force was faced with in this instance. So we applied what we call our analysis of alternatives criteria to the Air Force’s process for selecting the SPACECOM-preferred location. And what we found, were quite a number of weaknesses. So those criteria that I just mentioned, are grouped into four characteristics of a high quality, reliable process. And those characteristics are comprehensive, well documented, credible, and unbiased.

And we went through a fairly methodical approach of applying our criteria where we actually come up with a numerical score that we can give to the Air Force for each of those characteristics. And what we found is that the Air Force substantially met the comprehensive characteristics. So in that case, there were some good things that the Air Force did, but it only partially met The well documented and unbiased characteristics, and it minimally met the credible characteristic. And just to give you a few examples of some of the problems that we identified, the Air Force changed the definition of some of the criteria that it used over time as it was trying to evaluate the candidate locations. The Air Force also changed how it was weighting different criteria, which is important because you want to maintain however you are weighting different criteria across the board. There was no independent review conducted of the process, which typically the Air Force would do, and so on, and so forth. So there really were quite a lot of problems.

Jared Serbu: I wonder to what extent if at all, the Air Force deserves a bit of a pass here in the sense that they were directed to deviate from what would have been their normal practice, again, by the secretary, in a pretty heavily politicized environment, and in a situation that’s really kind of a one-off for them, right? Because they’re not making a basing decision for one of their own bases. They’re acting as the executive agent for someone else. There’s a lot of uniqueness about this event that in some ways, it’s understandable that they would deviate from their own processes, isn’t it?

Elizabeth Field: Well, it’s certainly understandable that they might deviate from their own process. I think where things went south is that in doing so, they made some mistakes that are really pretty fundamental problems that if you don’t have those sort of boxes checked, you’re gonna have a problem at the end of the day. But that is why we, our recommendation in this report is that moving forward, the Air Force, establish guidance that is consistent with our practices that it can apply to future basing decisions such as this one, so that it doesn’t run into the same problems that it did this time around.

Jared Serbu: Well one thing I do want to make clear is it didn’t seem like any of the people that you talked to, or that were stakeholders in this process, had the sense that Huntsville was a bad choice in the end. It was always considered among the top tier of possible locations for Space Command. So whatever one thinks of the process and how the Air Force got there, there’s not really a risk, that Space Command is going to end up in a bad place for its needs. Is that fair?

Elizabeth Field: That is fair. So there are six final candidate locations, all of them are considered what is termed reasonable alternatives to the selected location, meaning, any of those six the Air Force has determined could meet the mission need.

Jared Serbu: But the process is still problematic, right? And I think you make this point in your conclusion that the public needs to have confidence that the process is sound, so that things don’t go off the rails next time and where a bad choice really could be made.

Elizabeth Field: That’s right. I mean, ideally, even if someone disagrees with the final decision and doesn’t like the location that was picked for reasons that are pretty obvious, they should still have competence that the process was handled appropriately and responsibly. And that just didn’t happen here.

Jared Serbu: What more specifically, could the Air Force do? I mean, did they need to design and write down a process that is tailorable for something like this, where they’re called upon to go outside of the way they would normally use a basing process for their own bases, for their own needs?

Elizabeth Field: Well, our best practices that we recommend they adopt in guidance for future processes allow for tailoring to whatever the question is that you’re approaching. And so, and this is really important to point out, a certain amount of professional judgment is always going to be part of any process like this, and our criteria account for that. So it’s really more about making sure that you have a methodology that you have clearly defined from the outset that you don’t deviate from, in the middle of the process, that you clearly document, the assumptions that you’ve made, the methodology that you’re using, the decisions that you’re making along the way. And then you do things like having an independent review to ensure impartiality, and conducting something called a sensitivity review, where you test the assumptions in your model and see how changes to those assumptions affect your outcomes. The Air Force really didn’t do any of those things.

Jared Serbu: And I think maybe this is just a piece that’s not in the final report. But I think one of the big missing pieces were cost differentials between possible alternatives, how much they would save or spend if they went with a different location.

Elizabeth Field: That’s right. So one of our best practices is that the body that is conducting the process considered sort of full lifecycle costs of whatever the decision is that they’re trying to make. And we found that there were some costs that were not considered at all, such as any cost that might be incurred for relocation of Space Command. Right now it is provisionally located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. So those costs weren’t considered, maintenance of infrastructure costs were not considered. We also found that there were costs that the Air Force just couldn’t document how they calculated them. So there’s something called high altitude, electromagnetic pulse shielding. It’s also known as hemp shielding. And it’s really important though, because it protects communications technology from high intense energy attack, essentially. And the Air Force told us they had some experts who came up with those cost estimates, but they couldn’t show us where that was documented. So all of those things are problematic.

Jared Serbu: Elizabeth, pretty strong language in this report by GAO standards, and you found what you’ve talked about are serious problems. Why is there not a recommendation here for the Air Force to go back and redo its work the right way?

Elizabeth Field: Well, I appreciate that question. And there are a couple of answers to that. The first and most important here is that that is ultimately a judgment call. It is a policy call. And GAO is not a policymaking body. This decision has not yet been finalized. And so it is up to the Air Force, along with Congress and others to weigh the costs and benefits of potentially redoing the process. The second reason is, we did not in this report seek to validate the decision that the Air Force made. We don’t suggest whether the Air Force made the “correct decision” or not, or even whether the Air Force would have come to a different conclusion had it fully applied our best practices. And so the lack of a recommendation to redo the process should not be taken as an endorsement of Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location, or denigration of Redstone Arsenal as the preferred location.

Jared Serbu: And I guess that brings up one last question, which is, would it be possible for the Air Force to work backwards here a little bit? Fill in some of the missing data, do some of the the legwork that wasn’t done as part of the process in order to solve some of the credibility and transparency problems that you identified without going all the way back to the beginning? Or is the problem just that the data doesn’t exist and can’t be recreated at this point?

Elizabeth Field: Well, it’s certainly the case that some of the data cannot be recreated. When we tried to collect the documentation that the Air Force had compiled to do the analysis. We weren’t able to collect it in many cases, either because it never existed, or because it had been lost. The Air Force pointed to a software update that caused them to lose some of their documentation. I think it also would be hard to ameliorate all of the problems that we found with this process, because some of them were there from the beginning, for example, not clearly defining criteria, and so it would be hard to go back and do that.

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