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Omaha and Offutt shoot for moon in seeking Space Command HQ
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Omaha and Offutt shoot for moon in seeking Space Command HQ

One of the six finalists is a military base that’s right down the street from Florida’s rocket-launching post, Cape Canaveral.

Another finalist is an Alabama Army base where Wernher von Braun developed the rockets that first took America into space.

Yet another is a Colorado Springs air base with deep space roots that also currently serves as the Space Command’s interim home.

But Nebraska political and business leaders don’t see the Offutt bid as some kind of moon shot.

The Omaha-area base has its own space legacy, with the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command actually having overseen military space operations until just last year.

Combine that mission synergy with Offutt’s tremendous communications infrastructure, a state university that’s one of just 14 nationally designated by the Defense Department as a center for national security research, and community leaders who’ve shown they’re not afraid to open their wallets in a big way to support the military. Taken together, those pushing the Offutt bid believe the base can rocket to the top.

“We have all the right things to be highly competitive for this mission,” said Rick Evans, a retired Air Force major general from Omaha who is working with the state and Greater Omaha Chamber on the Offutt bid. “I would be surprised if we aren’t in the top 1 or 2. We have a solid chance.”

As with any major economic development prize, local bid organizers are pulling out all the stops to sell the metro area as the operational home of the U.S. Space Force, which essentially has become the sixth branch of the U.S. military, along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

The base that wins the Pentagon sweepstakes will land a four-star command and 1,400 military and civilian jobs, along with countless other high-paying jobs that military contractors would bring to town.

A key moment in the Offutt bid arrives Monday, when an Air Force site selection team will make a daylong visit to the base. A week after that, the Nebraska team will have exactly one hour to make a formal sales pitch for the command.

Offutt last month was named one of six final candidates for Space Command. The others are: Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida; Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs; Port San Antonio in Texas; and Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Pentagon’s criteria for selection include factors related to mission, infrastructure and facility capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense. Officials have said they hope to make a decision by early next year, with the new base fully operational and staffed by 2026.

***

Since nations first went to war with each other in ancient times, controlling the high ground has always been a strategic imperative. And today, there is no higher ground than space.

Leaders in Washington in recent years have grown concerned about the critical importance of space-based civilian and military assets and potential threats to them.

“The risk of a space Pearl Harbor is growing every day,” Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., wrote in a threat assessment last year, saying destruction of space assets would leave the U.S. military deaf, dumb, blind and impotent.

As a result, President Donald Trump and Congress decided to create a new U.S. Space Force to oversee all military space operations, from launching of military satellites to protection of American space assets. It’s the first new branch of the military since the creation of the Air Force in 1947.

Under the way the U.S. military is set up, the leadership of the Space Force is based in Washington in the Pentagon. But day-to-day operations of the new force are under a combatant command, the U.S. Space Command, which was established in August.

The president’s move actually marks a rebirth of the Space Command. A previous version had been established in 1985 in Colorado Springs to provide joint command and control in outer space for all branches of the military.

But that version of the Space Command was deactivated in a post-9/11 military shakeup, with its responsibilities and forces moved to Offutt under the U.S. Strategic Command. With a new military emphasis on space and the president’s creation of the new Space Force, there’s now a need to elevate space with a new command.

The Pentagon originally planned to name the new headquarters sometime in 2019, and even at one point named a different list of six finalists — one that included only two of the bases now under consideration.

But after some political pushback, a more inclusive competition was opened up, with states allowed to nominate military bases that were within the nation’s 150 largest metro areas.

Some two dozen states put roughly 50 bases into the contention. And when the new top six was revealed, Offutt emerged.

Robert Hinson, a retired Air Force lieutenant general living in Omaha who has not been part of the selection process or local push, said he’s not at all surprised to see Offutt on the list.

During his long Air Force career, he served as vice commander of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs. He served as deputy commander of StratCom at Offutt. He even commanded a space wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, seeing 63 rockets launched under his watch.

All five of the other finalist bases would bring strengths to the Space Command. But Offutt has some things that set it apart, too, he said.

“Offutt has a lot to offer,” said Hinson, the founding executive director of the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, the university’s Department of Defense research affiliate. “The community is one that will reach out, go get it, and do what it takes to make things happen. That’s a real plus.”

He said that get-it-done spirit was on display in recent years as community leaders created a unique public-private partnership to build a new federal health care facility for the region’s veterans, with donors putting up some $30 million for the $86 million project. That’s certainly been noted as part of the Offutt Space Command bid.

Ted Carter, the University of Nebraska president and retired Navy vice admiral who once headed the U.S. Naval Academy, said that while most military bases can claim support from their surrounding communities, there truly is a difference in Nebraska.

“As a new Nebraskan who wore the cloth of our nation for 38 years, I can personally say this state embraces and supports our military like no other place,” he said.

And while it has never launched or developed rockets, Offutt does know space, said Evans, who serves as Hinson’s deputy at the University of Nebraska defense institute.

The reason Space Command in 2002 was merged into StratCom is because there are great synergies between space and StratCom’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile and military command, control and communications missions. Now that the Pentagon has decided space should have its own command, those synergies would still exist if the two commands were co-located at Offutt, Evans said.

“We already have been involved in the space war-fighting mission for the last two decades,” he said.

There’s also plenty of room at the base for the new Space Command headquarters, which would be built on the north side of the runway near the base’s Air Force weather wing.

And Offutt is already wired like few places in the country, a legacy of Offutt’s nuclear mission. Space Command will require similar connectivity, making that a big Offutt selling point.

In a recent statement, Carter also cited the history of partnerships between the University of Nebraska and the military. And he noted that Nebraska is the only site under consideration with a tie to the Big Ten Academic Alliance, “the premier academic coalition in the country.”

“In short, Nebraska has the talent, the commitment and the proven partnerships to make us a successful permanent home for U.S. Space Command,” he said.

Offutt also offers everything else needed for a base hosting a major command, including a surrounding metro area with great amenities, low cost of living and a high quality of life, Evans said.

When the Pentagon in 2005 went through its last round of base closings, it rated every military base in the country on its ability to host “major administrative headquarters activities.”

Out of 344 bases nationally, Offutt ranked fourth.

To be fair, though, Peterson in Colorado Springs ranked third on that metric.

Some consider that base the front-runner for Space Command. A business news editor in San Antonio recently labeled it as the LeBron James of the competition.

Peterson’s space roots actually trace back to the creation of North American Aerospace Defense Command, a Cold War missile warning center.

Peterson also served as headquarters of the previous Space Command before the 2002 StratCom consolidation. Today, it’s the home of the interim headquarters for Space Command. Peterson and nearby Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base host a number of space-related missions.

“Colorado’s leadership in space is unmatched,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said last month. “With our existing military space infrastructure, Colorado is the perfect place for the permanent home to U.S. Space Command.”

But other competitors also have significant space chops.

Patrick is located along Florida’s “Space Coast,” just south of Cape Canaveral, and both facilities boast significant space assets and legacies.

Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence stood on the tarmac at Cape Canaveral to designate the former Air Force station and Patrick as the first two military installations bearing the Space Force name. They are now officially called Cape Canaveral Space Force Base and Patrick Space Force Base.

Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville also can’t be overlooked as a contender.

Between 1952 and 1956, von Braun led the Army’s rocket development team at Redstone, developing the nation’s first ballistic missiles. Then after the Soviets launched Sputnik and the space race began, von Braun and his team moved to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center on the base and developed the powerful rockets that took the first astronauts to the Moon.

Between Marshall, Redstone and related facilities, Huntsville officials say there are already some 65,000 people working in aerospace and defense in the area. Redstone and Peterson were also the only bases to make both lists of six finalists, including the earlier rejected one.

Although Alabama as a state often ranks near the bottom of national educational rankings, among the Space Command contenders the Huntsville metro area surprisingly has the highest percentage of adult residents with four-year college degrees. It’s a legacy of the brainpower behind the rocket science programs there.

So where is the new command likely to land? A couple of outside observers last week were willing to weigh in.

John Pike, whose GlobalSecurity.org website has information on military units, assets and installations all over the world, doesn’t accept the conventional wisdom that Peterson and Colorado Springs have the inside track.

Pike thinks that with Colorado Springs already host to the Air Force Academy, the Pentagon would want to locate the academic arm of the Space Force somewhere else. The whole reason for creating the Space Force, he said, was to separate the air and space domains.

“Spacecraft don’t do barrel rolls,” Pike said.

Similarly, he notes that with the creation of the Space Command there are now 11 unified, four-star commands in the U.S. military, and Peterson is already host to one. That’s Northern Command, which since 9/11 has been charged with protecting North America from attack.

Because the goal is to make space independent, Pike doesn’t think the Pentagon will want to locate Space Command with another four-star command. If that’s the case, that would hurt Offutt’s bid, too, because it hosts four-star StratCom.

Pike thinks the designation of Patrick and Cape Canaveral as the first Space Force bases are a good indication of the Pentagon’s thinking.

The main downside for Patrick, he said, are the hurricanes that seem to be hitting Florida with increasing regularity “and too many bugs — big ones.”

John Venable, an Air Force veteran and defense policy expert with the Heritage Foundation, said from a taxpayers’ perspective, keeping Space Command in Colorado Springs might make the most sense. But he also thinks politics could come into play.

“It’s going to be made more than anything by a plethora of Congress and Senate personnel coming in and being able to sway,” he said.

On that count, the strongest hand might belong to the bases in Florida and Alabama, which politically have “a huge center of mass,” he said. The appropriations chair in the Senate is Richard Shelby from Alabama.

Colorado also has a powerful caucus, he said, and Nebraska has some clout, too. Offutt has a number of assets that make it a strong contender, Venable said.

“It’s a full up game right now, and you guys can play to win,” he said.

That’s certainly what the state contingent pushing Offutt is hoping to do, Evans said.

The Nebraska promoters believe that if the contending bases are weighed on their merits, the new space command could well fall into Offutt’s orbit.


Offutt Air Force Base through the years

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Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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