Top Pentagon official Mike Griffin proposes new space agency that ‘disrupts’ traditional procurement

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WASHINGTON — Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin is recommending that the Pentagon create a Space Development Agency to take over next-generation space programs and transform how the military acquires space technologies.

Griffin’s recommendations were in response to a Sept. 10 memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan in which he requested that Griffin and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson submit separate proposals for how to create a Space Development Agency. The standup of a Space Development Agency is one piece of a broader effort to form a new military service for space.

Wilson submitted her plan in a Sept. 14 memo along with a detailed blueprint for how to organize a Space Force as a separate military department. Griffin’s proposal, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews, is dated Sept. 20.

Griffin and Wilson take very different approaches.

In her memo, Wilson suggests the Space Development Agency should be organized under the existing Space Rapid Capabilities Office and that it should be geographically and organizationally connected to U.S. Space Command. She recommends using “existing structures designed and chartered to acquire capabilities rapidly, rather than establishing new structures.”

Griffin is proposing a new D.C.-based agency with a staff of 112 government personnel that would report to him initially, but eventually would shift to the control of a new assistant secretary of defense for space, an office that would first have to be approved by Congress.

In Wilson’s plan, the Space Development Agency and other acquisition organizations would transition to the new Department of the Space Force. She pointedly pushes back on the idea of having an assistant secretary of defense for space or a Space Development Agency that reports to that office. She argues that such a setup would create additional bureaucracy that would be removed from the operators who use and maintain the equipment.

Griffin has been a frequent critic of the slow pace and high cost of military technology developments, and he contends that the Space Development Agency should lead a DoD-wide effort to accelerate innovation.

“To disrupt our adversaries’ calculus in the space domain and deter aggression, we must first disrupt our own space community’s risk-averse culture — by relearning how to build, deploy, operate and innovate rapidly, at low cost,” his proposal says.

Griffin makes a case for temporarily placing the Space Development Agency under in his portfolio so the SDA can collaborate with the other agencies that Griffin oversees and do space-related work — the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit.

Another major difference between Wilson’s and Griffin’s proposals is the scope of the potential portfolio of the Space Development Agency.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Credit: U.S. Air Force
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Wilson says the Space Development Agency should at first focus on “space superiority” — which is to counter efforts by adversaries to deny or degrade U.S. space systems. Under her plan, the bulk of the military’s satellite programs that provide services like navigation, missile warning, communications and weather would remain in their current services until the Department of the Space Force is established.

Griffin would give the Space Development Agency wider responsibilities for carrying out the “DoD Space Vision,” a broadly defined effort to modernize all U.S. military space capabilities. According to his proposal: “SDA will build out the next-generation space deterrence order of battle, leveraging U.S. commercial capabilities, on rapid timelines and at reduced cost.” To speed up programs, the agency would seek waivers from “any encumbering practices, policies or regulations.”

The production of existing space programs would remain in their existing organizations, Griffin’s plan says. Legacy programs, however, will be expected to “aggressively pursue improved performance within the scope of their sustainment efforts.” The SDA portfolio will “complement legacy space capabilities currently sustained and operated by service and intelligence agencies.”

Griffin proposes a shift from government-developed to commercial satellites and launch vehicles. The Space Development Agency would move the military from traditional satellites to a “proliferated architecture enabled by lower-cost commercially derived spacecraft and routine space access.” It would focus on “experimentation, prototyping and accelerated fielding,” says Griffin’s proposal.

The Space Development Agency would have a  “short, narrow chain of command,” he suggests. “To upend a risk-averse culture SDA must drive comprehensive change into the national security space community.”

To address concerns that the Space Development Agency would be disconnected from the operators in the field, Griffin would create a “Warfighter Council” within the SDA. The council would include a “strong red cell” that would do “devil’s advocacy” and challenge traditional thinking through “adversarial interaction with blue cells.”

The Space Development Agency in Griffin’s plan would have an Executive Board with members of the joint staff, the military services, the combatants commands and the intelligence community.

Griffin envisions the Space Development Agency taking over significant acquisition authorities — such as approving key design and development decisions and okaying major program milestones. This could become a contentious sticking point because the Pentagon could be taking away powers that the military services have by law. The secretaries of the services are responsible to “organize, train and equip” their forces.

In his proposal, Griffin would chair the Executive Board and act as the Space Development Agency’s “milestone decision authority” until an assistant secretary of defense for space is confirmed by Congress. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord would have milestone decision authority for production decisions. The director of the Space Development Agency would serve as the program executive officer for all activities assigned to the agency, and he or she would be the “space acquisition executive.”

Another potentially controversial item in Griffin’s proposal is to move resources from “legacy organizations” to the Space Development Agency. “Resources needed to support development of DoD’s space vision will shift from legacy organizations to SDA as soon as practical.”

The legacy organizations mentioned are Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Space Security and Defense Program. Resources also would come from the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Army Research Laboratory and the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. Navy organization that would provide resources include the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, the Naval Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Credit; U.S. Air Force
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Credit; U.S. Air Force

The organization most likely affected by a realignment of resources would be the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center that oversees the bulk of military space programs. Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan sought to calm fears during a speech last month the Air Force Association’s annual symposium.

“If we were to say, ‘How does the space and missile command, you know, fundamentally change?” It doesn’t tonight,” Shanahan said, directing his comments to SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thomson. “I think that looking right now at General Thompson, I mean, it’s like, “How do we go faster on SMC 2.0?”

But Shanahan’s previous comments suggest his thinking is aligned with Griffin’s on the path forward on space technology development and procurement.

Speaking with reporters in August after the release of the Pentagon’s space reorganization proposal to Congress, Shanahan noted that the Space Development Agency would bring “more of a developmental mindset than an acquisition mindset.”

“It’s very important that we leverage commercial space … and that we regain our technical chops,” Shanahan said. The work of the Space Development Agency would be decoupled from “so much of the acquisition process that drives so many reviews, so many checks and balances,” he said. “When you have the real technical abilities, you don’t need as much review. You don’t need as much oversight.”

Shanahan sees the Space Development Agency taking on a key role in “expanding the industrial base. “We’ve made leveraging commercial technology too complicated and this is really about making that easier.” He did note that SMC chief Thompson “has done a terrific job of moving out. He wasn’t waiting for us to drop a report to talk about the things we were going to change.”

Shanahan cautioned he does not want to “break things apart.” The Space Development Agency is “really more about how do we generate the technical capability and the systems engineering capabilities.”

How the Space Development Agency ultimately is organized and funded will be part of larger debate as the Trump administration puts forth a legislative proposal for standing up a Space Force that Congress would take up next year.

Supporters of Wilson’s views on the space reorganization argue that the military services and the NRO already are pursuing the “DoD space vision” that was articulated in Shanahan’s August report to Congress. One area where DoD needs help is in “space superiority,” they contend, and a new Pentagon agency that is not integrated with U.S. Space Command would not be in a strong position to do that.

Shanahan went to Los Angeles in late August to meet with Space and Missile Systems Center leaders. According to a DoD news release, he held a town hall for SMC workers in order to address questions about upcoming changes. He did not specifically explain how SMC would be affected, but said, “The first law of transformation is ‘do no harm.’”

According to one source close to SMC, “mixed messages have been sent to the workforce at SMC. General Thompson has been very concerned with the consequences of the uncertainty.” Shanahan’s statements “have gone a long way to assure the workforce and keep them focused on delivering capabilities.” Nevertheless, the source said, the prospect of a new Space Development Agency “does create uncertainty.”