WASHINGTON — The United States military can no longer count on having technological dominance over its adversaries. For the Pentagon, this is a pivotal moment that demands bold action, said Michael Griffin, the Trump administration’s nominee for the position of undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

Global spread of technology that the Pentagon used to own exclusively has shifted the balance of power, a situation that “demands that we reassert our technological leadership,” Griffin told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday during a confirmation hearing for a slate of Pentagon nominees.

“Our adversaries are leveraging nearly universal access to technology and exploiting our own scientific and technological advances to threaten our deployed forces, our allies and the national and economic security of our nation,” Griffin said.

Griffin had made a similar point in written answers to questions submitted to the committee. “Our most pressing challenge will be to field new capabilities faster than our adversaries, and faster than has been the case for decades,” he wrote.

Although the Pentagon is no longer the biggest player in technology, it nonetheless has significant talent in its national labs, the defense and commercial industrial base, and in academic institutions, Griffin noted. The Defense Department represents over 50 percent of U.S. government expenditures in research and development.

“We can and must provide the leadership to focus these critical national resources,” he said. For the Pentagon, priority one should be the “rapid incorporation of those technologies into new military capabilities.”

Griffin said the Pentagon currently faces the “most technically challenging future defense environment we have seen since the Cold War.” A top priority in his job will be “protecting the technological edge of our U.S. forces.”

Griffin is expected to be swiftly confirmed. He brings a strong technology and government background to the defense research and engineering job, a new position that Congress created specifically to shake up the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and speed up the transition to technology from labs to the field.

Griffin served as NASA administrator during the George W. Bush administration. He headed the space department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. He previously was president and chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel Inc., CEO of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Magellan Systems division, and general manager of Orbital’s Space Systems Group.

As undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, Griffin would be dual-hatted as chief technology officer of the Department of Defense. The CTO will be the primary advisor to the secretary and the deputy secretary for all things technology.

Space reforms

Because of his strong space background, Griffin is likely to be involved in ongoing efforts to reorganize the military’s space portfolio as mandated by Congress in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1601 of the NDAA included a number of reforms on space acquisition, management and oversight.

That point was raised by the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed. “You have a wealth of background on space, but let me be clear that the day-to-day job for which you are being confirmed is to be the chief technology and innovation officer of the department, and not for the management of space issues.”

In his written statement, Griffin said he would pay equal attention to all “warfighting domains, including space.” Space is “essential to achieving our national security objectives,” he said. “Our adversaries understand this and have taken concerted efforts to deny this advantage.” For that reason, the Pentagon needs to “maintain and enhance military superiority in space.”

On specific space technologies such as satellites, Griffin said the Pentagon should tap the considerable commercial investment in microsatellites and cubesats to “facilitate research and enable resilience in areas such as sensing, environmental forecasting, and communications.”

With regard to space launch, he said the Pentagon should “continue to work with new and existing commercial entrants.” He also suggested the Pentagon should increase collaboration with NASA, especially as military begins to focus on a national initiative in hypersonics.

Griffin said the Chinese have conducted nearly 20 times as many hypersonic flight vehicle tests as the United States has done over a comparable period. “This is a capability they’ve developed that overflies our air defense, under-flies our missile defense and holds our sea and land bases at risk.”

Air Force acquisition nominee

Also testifying at the SASC hearing was William Roper, the administration’s nominee to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

Roper echoed Griffin’s take on the tech world, stating that commercial technologies are on a path to “revolutionize warfare,” particularly artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomy.

As the director of the Pentagon’s strategic capabilities office, Roper has been a proponent of simplifying acquisitions, and of injecting commercial technologies into military systems. “Modern defense systems are too complicated, evolving and important to be stewarded by burdensome, cumbersome paper-driven processes,” he told the committee. “It is time to increase human-driven innovation and acquisition, the kind that birthed the SR-71, GPS, F-117 and so many other amazing systems that are the true roots of the Air Force.”

In his prepared statement to the SASC, Roper weighed in on the state of space procurement programs.

“The department must change its approach to space-based capabilities to ensure they are available when needed,” Roper wrote. “If confirmed, I will review the space acquisition structure through this lens to ensure its adequacy for addressing these new challenges.”

Concerning launch, Roper said the Air Force is “committed to space launch competition if there is more than one certified launch service provider. I support this position.”

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the use of Russian rocket engines after December 31, 2022. Roper said, if confirmed, he will “follow congressional direction and help the Air Force end U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...