Griffin rails at DoD procurement culture: ‘We make things expensive that don’t need to be’

As undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, Griffin will work to change behaviors and shake up a bureaucracy that “takes a long time, and wastes a lot of money."

WASHINGTON — Michael Griffin, newly sworn as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said people constantly ask him about his priorities.

So in his first public appearance 10 days into the job, Griffin made it loud and clear what he intends to focus on: Changing the Pentagon procurement culture and shaking up a bureaucracy that “takes a long time, and wastes a lot of money,” he said Tuesday at the McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse annual defense program conference.

The former head of NASA was picked to fill a high-profile position that Congress created to guide Pentagon investments in next-generation technology.

Griffin said he has the full backing of the Pentagon to go break a lot of china. Both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan have been “unrelenting” about the need to accelerate the development and fielding of technologies, he said.

The Defense Department for decades was at the forefront of innovation but has lagged since the end of the Cold War and now emerging competitors are catching up. As challengers continue to close in, the Pentagon seems content doing business as usual. Among Griffin’s pet peeves are the layers upon layers of managers who all get to have a say in programs. “We are going to have to have fewer reviews, more rapid reviews, reviews in parallel instead of in series,” he said. “We have to expedite our decision making from the top down. We are going to have to delegate authorities.”

He also criticized the Pentagon’s excessive use of “analyses of alternatives.” The Pentagon conducts AoA’s before it commits to buying a product, a process that can take years and has been used as a stalling mechanism. “It is no good to spend months or years on AoA’s and then pick nothing,” Griffin said.

With an extensive aerospace background, Griffin is likely to play a central role in shaping the modernization of the nation’s nuclear triad, and of military satellites and launch systems.

In the DoD space business, there is a culture of “perfect mission assurance” that leads to overly complex and expensive systems, he said. Occasionally there are special pieces of hardware like NASA’s Hubble space telescope that demands perfection, but most programs do not. “It’s probably worth the time and money on a single unique asset to make sure that you have a high level of mission assurance,” Griffin said. “But almost everything else we put in space is not like that,” he added. “We make things expensive by insisting on high levels of mission assurance. We’ve trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle of spending a lot of money on mission assurance which makes the assets incredibly expensive.”

No more ‘exquisite’ systems

Space is certainly an area where “we need to change our style of thinking” and stop buying “exquisite assets,” he said. “We need to recognize that the assets we deploy are targets. We need to build our architecture recognizing that in the event of a conflict, they are going to take losses. So we can’t have architectures that rely on exquisite assets that have very high value and require high levels of mission assurance knowing that in the first stages of a conflict they will be targets.”

Griffin’s long-term goal is to “make our enemies worry about catching up with us,” he said. “Previously sacrosanct processes, procedures and rules are going to have to take a back seat.”

Of special concern is China, a nation that is modernizing its military forces at a pace that has alarmed the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. It is ahead of the United States in the development of hypersonic missiles that can’t be detected by air defenses and are beyond the reach of U.S. missile shields.

Moving to develop and field hypersonic systems will be a priority, Griffin said. “China can hold our carrier battle groups and deployed forces at risk.” Now “our only response is to let them have their way or go nuclear. That should not be an acceptable situation for the United States.”

China also is developing “counter-space” weapons and electronic jammers that would target U.S. satellites in space and disrupt communications and navigation signals. Congress passed legislation last year requiring a major reorganization of military space offices, an effort now led by Shanahan. In a new report to the defense committees, the deputy secretary said DoD recognizes the problem and is conducting a massive review of the space procurement bureaucracy.

One of the most drastic changes would be the realignment of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles from a product-centric organization to an “enterprise” that looks at space more broadly and coordinates activities across mission areas.

Speaking at the McAleese conference, Darlene Costello, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and logistics, said service officials are “actively working this.”

There are weekly meetings, she said. The commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Jay Raymond and SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson are “very involved,” Costello said. In the near term, they are trying to accelerate programs using existing authorities and fast-track contracting. On the reorganization of SMC, said Costello: “They are working through that vision.” The enterprise concept, “they believe is a better way for them to operate with the workforce that they have,” she said. “I think it’s an interesting approach. If it works for space we may try it in other areas also. I think we should try it and see what happens.”