The future chain of command for the Missile Defense Agency is up in the air, as legislators express their frustration with how leadership has handled a number of missile defense priorities, including a space-based sensor layer that could track hypersonic weapons.

The House Armed Services’ strategic forces subcommittee is threatening to move the agency away from Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin and place it within the portfolio of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, reflecting a growing rift between Griffin and lawmakers.

The subcommittee’s markup of the draft National Defense Authorization Act notes “that the budget of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has experienced a 650 percent decrease in funding for advanced technology efforts since being aligned to the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, and that the majority of MDA programs would be acquisition category 1 efforts in the standard Department of Defense 5000 acquisition system.”

The agency has requested $9.2 billion for fiscal year 2021.

“What you see here is frustration with the leadership above MDA, which is to say Dr. Griffin. That’s what this is,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “This has basically been going on since he got the job.”

Who’s in charge of the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor?

The latest row between lawmakers and Griffin has to do with development of a new space-based sensor layer designed to track hypersonic weapons.

Griffin and the Trump administration battled with Congress throughout 2019 over which agency under Griffin’s purview should be in charge of developing the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, a proliferated constellation operating in low Earth orbit, capable of detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons. While Congress argued that MDA should take primary responsibility for developing and fielding the sensor, the While House argued that it was too soon to put one agency in charge, and instead it should continue to be a collaborative effort between MDA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Space Development Agency, all of which are under Griffin’s purview.

Congress ultimately won out, including language in the 2020 defense policy bill that directed MDA to take primary responsibility for the development and deployment of the system.

Despite that action, legislators are still concerned about who is in charge of the effort.

While MDA has moved forward with development of HBTSS, issuing four $20 million contracts for prototypes in October 2019, the agency’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 shifts funding responsibility to SDA. Confused by this proposal in March, members of the HASC’s strategic forces subcommittee questioned MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill over which agency was in charge of HBTSS and whether the effort was being adequately funded during a March hearing.

For his part, Hill unequivocally stated that MDA would remain in charge of sensor development for HBTSS. However, he argued that funding for that effort would be provided by the SDA in a new arrangement designed by Griffin to consolidate space funding under SDA. Both agencies are under his purview.

“He’s trying to consolidate the dollars for space, because it’s such an important capability that we need,” Hill told lawmakers at the hearing. “What I do recognize is a concern for the Congress is visibility into how those dollars are leveraged and making sure that MDA is in charge of building that sensor. There’s been no change in that strategy for MDA to remain the developer for that sensor and to provide that to SDA as part of their architecture.”

Hill’s reassurances do not seem to have convinced the legislators. The subcommittee’s markup of the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act reemphasizes Congress’ desire that MDA be responsible for the sensor payload. It also limits SDA’s operations and maintenance funding until the Secretary of Defense “provides certification that MDA is responsible for development of the HBTSS sensor payload.”

However, a defense official told C4ISRNET that requirement had already been filled, with Griffin certifying that MDA remains the lead on developing the sensor payload in a May 29 letter to Congress.

Still, the language remains in the draft legislation.

“There’s been some personality as well as some institutional factors that have gotten in the way of, frankly, a lot of agreement, or potential agreement, on the mission and on the vision,” said Karako. “I don’t see anybody that really completely rejects the idea of proliferated LEO for missile defense.”

Mounting frustrations

For Karako, the conflict over HBTSS is a microcosm of lawmakers’ frustration with MDA under Griffin’s leadership. Legislators are concerned MDA is not adequately investing in advanced technologies such as HBTSS. Hence the suggestion that it should be move to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.

“You saw that in bipartisan frustration in the March hearing where both [Rep.] Mike Rogers {R-Ala.] and Chairman [Jim] Cooper, [D-Tenn.] both of them, said, ‘Hey, we just told you to keep it in MDA and you went and moved it to SDA in the ’21 budget,’” he said. “So I see HBTSS as kind of the canary in the coal mine for the future of MDA’s advanced technology work.”

The rift has been further exacerbated by Griffin’s decision to terminate the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, which would have replaced the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), in favor of a new next-generation interceptor competition.

“Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” said Griffin in August. “Development programs sometimes encounter problems. After exercising due diligence, we decided the path we’re going down wouldn’t be fruitful, so we’re not going down that path anymore. This decision supports our efforts to gain full value from every future taxpayer dollar spent on defense.”

Some lawmakers, however, remain frustrated by the terminations of that program. Cooper, the subcommittee chairman, cited both HBTSS and the RKV decision in an assault on Griffin’s tenure June 22, although he did not call out the under secretary by name.

“The mark continues to mandate and support a space sensor layer that is capable of tracking both advanced ballistic and hypersonic missile threats, despite the Department’s astonishing lack of focus on this effort over the past four years,” said Cooper in prepared remarks. “In addition, after the failure of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, we are carefully monitoring the Next Generation Interceptor. In addition, to acknowledging that missile threats are real and that the programs to defeat them are significant acquisition efforts that require extensive oversight, our mark requires the Secretary of Defense to re-evaluate the alignment of the Missile Defense Agency within the Department.”

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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