WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top technology expert defended Wednesday his decision to move the Strategic Capabilities Office under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in his first comments to reporters since the surprise exit of his handpicked director for the SCO.
Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the move is needed to manage the office “efficiently without adding a whole new superstructure” of bureaucracy, despite opposition from some members of Congress.
Created by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the SCO’s mission is different from that of DARPA. Whereas the latter is focused on finding and prototyping the game-changing technologies for the future fight, the SCO tries to understand current needs and address them in new ways, often by taking existing systems and modifying them.
When Carter became defense secretary, he had the SCO directly report to him, an organizational move designed to avoid bureaucracy and allow new capabilities to move quickly. However, under the reorganization of the department’s acquisition office, the SCO was bumped down to directly report to Griffin. Proponents of the office argued the change would weaken the SCO’s ability to move quickly on innovations, a concern that has been amplified with the new reorganization.
Put another way: Should the DARPA move happen, the SCO will have gone from reporting directly to the secretary of defense in early 2018 to reporting to the director of DARPA, who reports to the deputy R&E, who reports to the R&E head, who reports to the defense secretary — four levels down by 2020.
On Wednesday, Griffin described that setup as one that is draining large amounts of time for him and his deputy secretary, Lisa Porter, as the two are required to act as “peer reviewers” for the SCO’s $1.4 billion portfolio. “We had to be the peer reviewers of how well the programs, the individual programs, were being managed, and there were dozens of them. And it was too much. It wasn’t getting from us the attention that it needs,” Griffin said.
“We were out of time. We’re already working as many hours a week as we can do.”
DARPA, however, has “that kind of technical and programmatic management and peer review structure,” Griffin argued. “So we determined that would be the [best way forward] to get the kind of management supervision we wanted without adding a bunch of bodies, OK? I did not want to add a whole new layer of management. I wanted to use what I had. And if we needed a few extra bodies, we would hire them.”
Supporters of the SCO were also alarmed by the sudden exit of Chris Shank, a longtime Griffin associate who was named SCO director in August 2018, only to exit in June 2019. Shank’s decision to leave was reportedly tied to disagreements with Griffin about the SCO’s future. But Griffin’s comments on Wednesday made it sound as if the R&E head made the call.
“Mr. Shank, who had been a friend for many, many years, had said that he was in support of the change. Apparently he changed his mind, and in the course of [that, he] provided a decision package to the Hill, a pre-decisional package,” Griffin said.
That package was in opposition to Griffin’s own policy package. And based on Griffin’s comments, Shank went around his boss to deliver that to both Congress and then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
“So that’s just not allowed,” Griffin continued. “And so he left. There’s really nothing more to say. It was extremely unfortunate, but when those kind of things happen, there really is only one outcome. And that’s what happened.”
Following Shank’s exit, some key lawmakers jumped in to pump the brakes on any reorganization. The matter is expected to be settled as the Armed Services committees negotiate a final version of the 2020 defense authorization bill over the coming weeks.
The House-passed bill included language from Rep. Mac Thornberry, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, barring the reorganization until 30 days after the defense secretary provides a detailed plan to the congressional defense committees. The Texas representative felt the SCO could be saddled with extra bureaucracy by the move, unintentionally thwarting the intent behind the office’s creation.
Griffin indicated Wednesday there was little opposition from Congress when first informed of the SCO reorganization, saying: “I offered briefings on it to our four oversight committees, [and] only one of them even cared enough to take us up on it. I briefed them, and they were fine with it.”
He said he will "continue to work with our congressional oversight committees to explain why this is the, I should say, the least overhead solution, to managing the projects that SCO does. I’m a fan of the SCO model, so that’s not at issue.”
Jen Judson in Huntsville, Ala., and Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.
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.