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Florida leaders say Air Force ‘misled’ them as to state’s chances to land Space Command HQ

Frank DiBello, Space Florida president and CEO, speaks on Florida's chances of hosting the U.S. Space Command during a summit of state leaders at Orlando International Airport on May 9, 2019. (Chabeli Herrera/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

In a meeting room at Orlando International Airport just last week, dozens of state leaders spoke with certainty of Florida’s chances to host the newly formed U.S. Space Command.

“We are space, you just gotta say it,” proclaimed Chip Diehl, a member of the Florida Defense Support Task Force. “Where else would you put a headquarters than the place that lives space?”

The Air Force’s response came Tuesday: Not in Florida.

The Air Force confirmed it was sticking to a previously released shortlist of six bases, which outlines the locations that are still in the running to become the headquarters for U.S. Space Command, the nation’s 11th combatant command that would coordinate space-related military activities across branches of service.

Four locations in Colorado made the list, as well as one in Alabama and one in California.

The shortlist is the same that surfaced in April through an internal memo reported by CNN. But state leaders refuted the validity of the list at the time, saying Florida still had a chance.

At the summit last week in Orlando Airport, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said via a video message that, “The game is wide open, and Florida is absolutely in it.”

That information came from U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, R-St. Augustine, who was told the Air Force would follow a “strategic basing process,” meaning it would determine what criteria it was looking for in a base, make that information public and then decide on a shortlist. Waltz, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, was leading Florida’s efforts on Capitol Hill.

But Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations at Space Florida, said it appears that information was incorrect.

“As I understand it right now, the Air Force Legislative Liaison office has misled a number of members of our delegation as to what the process was, and that’s not a good thing,” Ketcham told the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday. “This is the worst-case scenario because now Florida is not just disappointed — it’s pissed off.”

Waltz said in a statement to the Sentinel that he questions whether the outgoing Air Force Secretary, Heather Wilson, “forced this issue on her way out.” Wilson will resign her position by the end of the month.

“Florida’s communities and leaders deserve transparency and an open process, which the Air Force initially committed to in selecting the Space Command location,” he said. “Florida deserves a fair chance.”

Since Vice President Mike Pence announced plans to establish a Space Command, Colorado has been widely acknowledged as the likely front runner for the headquarters. Bolstering that idea was the fact that President Donald Trump nominated four-star Air Force Gen. John Raymond to run it.

Raymond is the current commander of Air Force Space Command, based in Colorado Springs.

Florida began mounting an aggressive campaign earlier this year to clinch the new Space Command headquarters. The Pentagon has estimated it would cost about $84 million to set up the unit, which would be comprised of about 1,200 personnel.

Gov. Ron DeSantis sent a letter to President Donald Trump in February requesting he headquarter Space Command in the Sunshine State. And Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority, was working to build a case for Florida that highlighted its position as a major launch site for military and commercial payloads, its large military population, proximity to ports and developing identity as a home for commercial manufacturing in the space industry.

Now the headquarters appears to be out of Florida’s grasp. The bases on the shortlist are: In Colorado, Buckley Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Peterson Air Force Base and Schriever Air Force Base; Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.

“The next step will be to complete site surveys and analysis of each candidate location for its ability to meet mission requirements, capacity, environmental impact and cost criteria,” the Air Force said. It expects to approve the preferred location this summer.

Ketcham said Florida still has a chance to benefit in some way from the establishment of Space Command by perhaps hosting some elements or responsibilities of the command.

“We are more energetic about what Florida has to offer to the national security space arena than we were when we started this back in February,” he said. “I have little doubt that Florida is going to come out of this in pretty good shape.”


© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.