This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
During a speech to a room packed with Pentagon contractors last August, Mike Griffin, the recently appointed U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, openly fretted about how little time he had left in office and how much he wanted to get done.
At the top of his to-do list is what Griffin described as a “proliferated space sensor layer, possibly based off commercial space developments.” He insisted that space sensors must soon be deployed to fill gaps in the current missile defense system that make the United States and its allies vulnerable to Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons.
“We know that this can be done,” said Griffin of the space sensor layer. But it could not be done fast. The Pentagon takes on average 16 years from “stating a need to initial operational capability.”
Griffin, an accomplished technocrat with a half-dozen advanced degrees to his name, was exasperated with the Pentagon’s procurement bureaucracy long before joining the Trump administration in February 2018. As the Pentagon’s “space guy,” the former NASA administrator was especially annoyed by the slow and “process driven” way the military develops and procures satellites and other systems.
He found a like-minded partner in then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a Boeing veteran and vocal critic of the defense acquisition process. They were convinced that the traditional procurement system stood in the way of the innovation that DoD needed to stay ahead of rivals China and Russia — not just in space and hypersonic weapons, but also in artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.
To advance in space, Griffin argued, DoD needed to tap into the vibrant commercial sector that was investing billions of dollars in satellite manufacturing technology, ground systems and launch vehicles to deploy “megaconstellations” in low Earth orbit to provide cheap broadband to the world. This was a model that also would work for DoD, Griffin reasoned. The Pentagon could develop its own proliferated constellation using low-cost commercial satellites not just for communications but also for missions like surveillance, missile warning and global navigation.
A large network of satellites in LEO would give DoD a foundation to develop new capabilities in space and reduce dependence on large satellites in geosynchronous orbit that are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons. Griffin argued that a proliferated constellation would not only give DoD a resilient space infrastructure, but it would be truly joint, shared by all of DoD and the military services.
But the big question was who in DoD would do this.
The concept of a proliferated LEO constellation already was being explored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under a program called Blackjack. But DARPA only does experiments. It is up to the military services to develop operational systems. It was obvious to Griffin that a system based mostly on commercial technology was not something the traditional procurement organizations could take on, at least not on a timeline that was acceptable to him.
Thus was born the idea of the Space Development Agency as a separate organization with the sole mission to accelerate the development and fielding of new military space capabilities. It would have special acquisition authorities to allow projects to move fast without getting bogged down in reviews and Pentagon bureaucracy.
Griffin recently revealed that planning for the SDA began in March 2018, just weeks after he arrived at the Pentagon. Unexpectedly, President Trump in June announced he wanted to create a Space Force. Shanahan, who oversaw the space reorganization, decided to include the SDA in a broader proposal he unveiled in August that laid out how the Pentagon would manage the space enterprise. It had three key pillars: U.S. Space Command, U.S. Space Force and the Space Development Agency. It wasn’t until that report was made public Aug. 9 that anyone outside Shanahan’s and Griffin’s inner circles had heard of the SDA.
Despite high-level support from Shanahan and the White House’s National Space Council, the SDA proposal was disconcerting to many. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson rejected the new agency as unnecessary and duplicative of existing Air Force organizations. Members of Congress from California and New Mexico — worried that SDA would drain resources and jobs from Air Force space organizations in their districts — challenged DoD to explain why the new agency was needed. Critics also questioned why DoD had to create a separate organization to circumvent its own procurement process. The answer, Shanahan said, was that changing the procurement system would take too long and space innovation could not wait.
Despite the pushback, there was no stopping the SDA since the Pentagon did not require congressional authorization to create it. And Wilson was overruled by Shanahan, who became acting defense secretary in January and signed a March 12 memo that officially created the new agency under the authority and control of the Office of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
Griffin has scoffed at the naysayers. “I’m not personally trying to shake up anybody or anything,” he said. What SDA will attempt to do — design a proliferated LEO sensor and communications transport layer — is not being done anywhere else in DoD. Existing organizations like the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles “have a very important function to oversee the legacy space architecture,” Griffin said. “What we’re doing is a new thing, to meet known mission requirements.”
Team of loyal allies
Weeks before Shanahan signed the SDA decree, SpaceNews reported that Griffin had picked Fred Kennedy, the director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, to lead the new organization.
That came as no surprise. Griffin had tapped Kennedy in December to lead a study on how to organize the SDA. A longtime critic of the Pentagon’s space procurement ways, Kennedy was the mastermind of DARPA’s Blackjack program, and he understood exactly what Griffin wanted to do and what it might take to get it done.
The SDA is now part of the so-called Research & Engineering Enterprise that includes DARPA, the Missile Defense Agency, the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and the Defense Innovation Unit.
To lead the R&E team, Griffin handpicked trusted allies, many with space backgrounds. His deputy Lisa Porter is a longtime colleague who worked with Griffin at NASA and the CIA’s technology incubator In-Q-Tel. SCO Director Chris Shank, a former Air Force officer with stints at the National Reconnaissance Office and Space Command, was Griffin’s right-hand man at NASA from 2005 to 2009, serving as director of strategic investments.
Chris Scolese, NASA’s chief engineer under Griffin and the agency’s acting administrator when Griffin left in 2009, was nominated by Trump in February to be the next director of the National Reconnaissance Office. Griffin is said to have advocated for the selection of Scolese. The NRO is one of the key organizations that the SDA will turn to for space expertise and support.
Former Griffin colleagues who spoke with SpaceNews about Griffin’s management philosophy said they were not surprised he has managed to disrupt the notoriously entrenched military service bureaucracy.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon “Pete” Worden worked with Griffin — a fellow Strategic Defense Initiative Office alumnus — for decades, including as Griffin’s pick to run NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. He recalled Griffin often complained that NASA could not function as a team because its far-flung field centers across the United States operated too independently. Griffin wished he could have “all of NASA in one place,” making the agency leaner and faster, Worden said.
Griffin thought about consolidating centers but quickly found it was politically impossible. “He just wanted people to work together better,” said Worden. Griffin was not able to close any centers but he did eliminate their individual logos so it was clear that “everybody worked for NASA.”
That thinking also has driven Griffin’s push to form a space agency at DoD that will serve the entire department and the national security space community and not be influenced by parochial service interests. “He doesn’t want to hear about agencies or services, he wants to work as a single team,” Worden said. “He lectured me on that a lot.”
Griffin brought a team of former colleagues and space experts to DoD who understand his goals and will help him get it done, said Worden. “Mike believes people are policy. The people he puts in place understand they need to do things differently and not let a lot bureaucracy get in the way.” Worden put it another way: “Mike doesn’t want to hear a ‘no, because…’ answer. He wants to hear ‘yes, if the following things are done.’”
Space industry veteran Robert Cleave, chief revenue officer at launch startup Vector, has known Griffin since the 1980s. He said he was impressed to see Griffin accomplish so much so fast. “I’m astounded by the amount of traction he’s getting.”
In many ways, he is “energizing the department,” Cleave said. The people he has brought in are not just space experts but also people like Kennedy who appreciate the opportunities privately funded technology present for DoD.
Cleave said Griffin confidante Shank, SCO’s director, recently visited Vector facilities and commented that when Griffin asked him to leave lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates to join DoD, it was for a simple reason: “I need your help to change things.”
What’s next for SDA
Griffin has been insistent that the SDA’s first order of business will be to design the proliferated sensor data and communications transport layer in LEO that will consist of many mass-produced small satellites, each with multiple inter-satellite crosslinks and redundant space-to-ground links. The transport layer would be used to develop military space capabilities such as a positioning, navigation and timing system; low-latency targeting; and detection and tracking of ballistic and advanced missile threats.
DoD is requesting $44.8 million to staff SDA with an estimated 225 people — a 50/50 split between government and military personnel and support contractors. The budget also seeks $20 million to develop the LEO sensor network, $85 million for space technology development and prototyping, $15 million to develop transport layer architecture and standards, $10 million for commercial procurement of space situational awareness capabilities and launching LEO smallsats, $30 million for LEO missile warning ground integration, $15 million for a space-based interceptors study and $15 million for a space-based discrimination assessment.
Even with funding and political backing in the building, Griffin and the SDA might have a relatively short window of opportunity to prove themselves. A close Griffin associate who spoke on condition of anonymity said Griffin plans to lay the groundwork for SDA and let his successors build it from there. But it took a disrupter like Griffin to seize the moment when the administration and Congress are focused on space and in agreement that additional investment is needed to help the United States compete with China and Russia. “He is the right person at the right time,” the associate said.
During a Q&A with reporters in March, Griffin was pressed to explain why DoD needs a new agency to put up a LEO constellation. Couldn’t an existing organization do that? Maybe, Griffin said. “I’m not trying to be glib here…We’re not solving world hunger.”
But the SDA is not about a specific project. It’s about trying to lead DoD’s space investment and acquisition culture in a different direction. The SDA is Griffin’s stab at making a fresh start and leading by example.