WASHINGTON — Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin sees time ticking away and his agenda moving at a glacial pace.
“I have two and a half years remaining as a political appointee in this job,” he reminded a large audience of defense contractors last week at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.
Griffin has frequently lashed out at the Pentagon’s oppressive procurement process that slows down innovation as China closes in. This time he called out the defense industry for contributing to the problem.
“I’m here tonight to ask all of you: I may be the head coach but you’re all on the team,” Griffin said. His main beef with the industry is that, like the government, it is “mired in process.”
“I will be asking you every chance I get to look at what you’re doing and find ways to either eliminate it or shortcut it,” Griffin said, “because most of what you’re doing by definition is not ‘value added.’”
That sounds “harsh,” he continued. But it is necessary criticism at a time when the Chinese are measuring progress in advanced weapons developments in months, “while we’re in years.”
The said the average DoD and NASA program takes 16.5 years to get from “statement of need” to “initial operational capability.”
Griffin believes fast decision making is the reason China is outpacing the United States in the development of hypersonic weapons. “They are not inherently brighter nor do they work harder than we do. What are they doing differently? They are not doing a lot of things that clearly do not need to be done. They are not consulting a lot of people that plain just do not need to be consulted.”
For DoD to move faster, “each of you at every single level have to look at what you are doing and weed out that which you do not need to do and weed out the people who do not need to be consulted. That is the only way.”
Defense and space companies working under government contracts could be doing more to help speed things up, said Griffin. “You need to identify, each of you, the key decision makers, the chains of command and empower them to decide quickly,” he said. “You must not seek out committees of people to verify, validate decisions so that no one individual can be wrong. We have to get out of this mindset that all decisions have to be made perfect before they go out the front door.”
Commercial not always fast
Griffin also took a sideswipe at unnamed commercial space companies that are praised for their agility. “They only look fast by comparison with government processes,” he said. “Commercial space hasn’t actually gone that fast given when they started and the money they were provided by the government.”
“I have no problem with space contractors. But let’s just call it what it is. They are going faster than we are accustomed to seeing of late,” Griffin said. “Why are they able to move faster? Because they are trying to adhere to using only processes that add value rather than ‘all possible’ processes.”
Griffin said it frustrates him that every time he meets with lawmakers he’s asked “What relief do you need? What legal remedies do you require? What can we do to help you go faster?” Here’s something that the industry can do: “You must look at the boxes you are checking, the paperwork that you are filling out.”
It also bothers Griffin that contractors that may be developing a technology they know DoD wants don’t share that information. Executives from companies “told me they heard I was interested in something but haven’t heard any official information.” His response: “Why are you waiting for someone from the government to call? Why didn’t I get a call and ask me where’s my official direction? Then I can break loose that chain of command and find out why the government people had not communicated that down to contractors that must perform the work,” he said. “That’s the mindset that we all need to be in.”
Following the breakup of the Pentagon’s previous acquisition shop, Griffin is in charge of the research and engineering portfolio, whereas Ellen Lord is undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.
Griffin said the “bumper sticker version of my job is that I don’t have anything to do with anything that the Defense Department is currently buying. I’m in charge of buying all the stuff we don’t yet own.”
It recently struck him that the days keep going by and his time in the Pentagon could be over before he has been able to accomplish his goals.
“I’m a political appointee,” he reminded the crowd. “No one should even endeavor to predict the outcome of an election or one’s personal future after that election. It would be hubris to think otherwise.”
Griffin in his speech did not mention the forthcoming reorganization of the military’s space agencies and the push to create a Space Force. There is wide speculation that he may be up for a more space-focused assignment in the future given his vast experience as a former administrator of NASA and high-level positions in the space industry. If Congress approves a separate military service to oversee space, Griffin has been mentioned as a candidate to become the nation’s first secretary of the Space Force.