WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s new office of the undersecretary of research and engineering could end up with a lead role in America’s development of military space capabilities, as the department grapples with congressional interest in a massive reorganization.

In 2015, the Pentagon declared that the Air Force secretary will henceforth also be the principal Department of Defense space adviser, or PDSA — the department’s top adviser on space issues. But recent congressional action stripped that job from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and handed the choice of where it should go to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Now the Pentagon’s No. 2 has hinted he is considering switching that job over to the newly created undersecretary of research and engineering.

While responding to a question about who would take up the PDSA job in the future, Shanahan quickly brought up the fact that the man expected to be the new R&E head would be coming in with a wealth of space experience.

“We haven’t laid flat the final responsibilities there, but what’s really exciting about next year is we’ve got Mike Griffin on board,” who touts extensive experience in the space domain, the deputy told reporters Dec. 21.

Griffin, a former NASA administrator during the George W. Bush administration, was formally nominated this month. He has yet to have a confirmation hearing but is expected to have one in January with the goal of having him in place by the Feb. 1 creation of the R&E job.

As currently constructed, the R&E office is not planned to have a heavy hand in space issues, aside from its broad mandate to help develop new technologies. But Griffin’s space experience seems to have captured the interest of Shanahan as the deputy is working through broader changes to the Pentagon.

Asked directly if Griffin could become the PDSA, Shanahan called it a “possibility,” but said he expects Griffin would take on a leadership role for space issues regardless of the former NASA head’s formal title.

“He’s one of the finer minds and more experienced leaders in space,” Shanahan said. “That’s why we put him on the table.”

Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said having Griffin take the PDSA role would be “a logical pick,” but warned that Griffin, if confirmed, will face a series of challenges over the creation of R&E that will dominate his time.

”Griffin will already have his hands full standing up a new organization,” Harrison noted. “And it's not clear how much actual power he will have to force the services to carry out a decision he makes. The services have the money and the milestone decision authority.”

The question of who will become the DoD’s point person for space issues has become increasingly contested over the last year following a push by House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., to create a new Space Corps inside the department.

The move, heavily opposed by the Pentagon, eventually failed, but the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act still required that Shanahan decide who should have the PDSA role — and specified that it cannot go back to the Air Force.

The NDAA also killed off the Air Force’s new three-star billet for deputy chief of staff for space operations. Instead, it gives more responsibility to Air Force Space Command for space acquisitions, resource management, requirements, war fighting and personnel development — viewed as a start for the potential creation of a Space Corps in the future, where Space Command could be spun off into its own service.

Despite clashes over the Space Corps, Shanahan said Rogers has been “really good” to work with as the department figures out the best way forward on space issues.

“I mean, some people can read that we’re at odds about this,” the deputy said. “It’s actually been really collegial about how do we do this better and faster, and really get at some of the capabilities that are going to make us very competitive.”

For his part, Rogers has said he plans to keep the fight going for a full-fledged Space Corps, with the expectation it will be stood up sometime in the next five years.

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.

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