WASHINGTON – The man poised to become the first ever undersecretary of defense for research and engineering supports investing heavily in airborne missile defense and directed energy weapons, as well as new ways of moving technology from theory to production.
Michael Griffin, the former NASA administrator up for the R&E job, faced few tough questions during his nomination hearing Thursday, but did give insight into some of the areas he may focus on after what appears to be an inevitable confirmation.
Asked about the feasibility of airborne boost-phase missile defense, Griffin expressed strong support for the idea, calling it “very feasible” to develop the technology, which he said would be particularly useful against a country like North Korea.
“It was feasible many years ago to do it. What we have lacked in the missile defense arena until recently was the will, not the technology, not the means,” Griffin said.
The idea of airborne missile defense systems has become more popular in recent months, with members of Congress pushing the Pentagon on such ideas as arming drones with lasers that, in theory, could take out a just-launched ICBM. Analysts have questioned how feasible such technology is, and the Pentagon appears to be in just the early stages of experimenting with the concept.
Griffin acknowledged that interest from the Hill outstrips that from inside the Pentagon, saying “Congress is leading the department, ahead of the department on this. And if confirmed you will not be ahead of me in your advocacy for this capability. I strongly support such [technology].”
He also showed support for directed energy weapons, saying that laser technology has been “given that less priority, by far, than I think it deserves.”
The R&E office will be created Feb. 1 when the acquisition, technology and logistics office splits into two. That process will take place over two years, leaving Griffin opportunities to alter the proposed structure of the R&E office.
One idea he proposed during the confirmation hearing – creating a team specifically charged with helping transition high-tech programs from DARPA and other innovation hubs into use by the services.
“We don’t suffer from a lack of innovation. We suffer from the inability to get things into operational systems,” Griffin said.
“The difficulties are of course that the people who are innovators are generally not expert operators and field people,” he continued. “They don’t really know, their expertise is not [with operational systems] and the program mangers we have in the department and elsewhere in the federal government, they have exigent and current problems. And when you have a choice between spending money on bringing a new capability into being or spending money getting out the door what you were previously charged with doing, the urgent almost always overwhelms the long term.”
To counter that, Griffin offered the idea of standing up some sort of formal team to assist transitions – something not included in the current plan for the AT&L split.
“We need to put someone in charge of it and give them that task. I don’t think that task properly belongs in DARPA and I certainly don’t think we can burden program managers with it,” he said. “I’m very interested in that.”
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.