WASHINGTON — Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has emerged as the leading candidate to be the first undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, sources told Defense News on Monday.

Although the nomination is not guaranteed, Griffin appears to be the only serious candidate, the sources said.

The role of undersecretary of defense for research and technology, or USDR&E, will be created Feb. 1, when the devolution of the undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics, or AT&L, is completed. It is part of a congressionally mandated reorganization that proponents say will lead to a renewed focus on technology development and prototyping.

It is likely the White House will seek to have a nominee already cleared and ready to go before the new role is formally created. Ellen Lord is handling the job of splitting the AT&L office, after which she will become the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

In August, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the Pentagon was getting close to finding a nominee. Shanahan described the ideal candidate as an innovative thinker, someone who “is not managing all the programs in the company” but instead focuses on big picture issues, delegating technical responsibility to experts at the lower levels.

Griffin, who led NASA from 2005 to 2009, recently appeared as a guest of the first hearing of the new National Space Council, where he opined on the need for innovative solutions to military space challenges and backed the idea that smaller systems are needed for future command and control.

“I believe the concept of a centralized command and control node, centralized observation points, is frankly as dead as the battleship after Pearl Harbor,” Griffin said during the Oct. 5 event. “Every node can be a command and control node. We need to work out a strategy and a hierarchy for how such devolution would take place in the event of conflict. But the enemy should know that there is no central point of attack, which could render us incapacitated.”

Speaking at the AUSA conference Oct. 9, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said the AT&L restructure has his full backing, in large part because the process of getting weapons into the hands of warfighters needs to be sped up.

“As much as processes bore all of us to tears, if we don’t get this acquisition process right, you can throw the best people in the world at it and nine times out of 10, a bad process is going to win,” Mattis said.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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