Griffin Says Hypersonics, Acquisition Reform are Top Priorities

Mike Griffin, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, speaks at a McAleese/Credit Suisse FY2019 Defense Programs Conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. DOD photo.

Mike Griffin, in his 10th day on the job as the new Pentagon undersecretary for research and engineering, said Tuesday it’s clear that hypersonics has to be the top technical priority of his tenure, while reforming the Pentagon acquisition system—specifically, accelerating it—is his top policy priority.

Hypersonic weapons in the hands of an adversary can deny the US the ability to deploy its forces at the time and place of its choosing, keeping carrier battle groups and other power projection assets at bay, a situation that’s “unacceptable,” Griffin said at a McAleese/Credit Suisse conference in Washington. The unpleasant response choices would either be to “go nuclear” or let an adversary “have their way,” and “that’s a bad place to be,” he asserted. Consequently, “if I had to pick my highest technology priority, [hypersonics] would be it. … There has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first. … We need to get on with it.”

Allowing an adversary to build a long lead in hypersonics “invites bad behavior” because that adversary will interpret it as the US being unwilling to do what’s necessary to stand up to technical or geopolitical challenges, Griffin said.

Besides the long range and speed advantage of hypersonic weapons, “they underfly missile defense and overfly air defense. That’s a niche we haven’t spent much time on recently,” Griffin noted.

He reported that China is very aggressively pursuing this technology, having racked up “in round numbers … 20 times as many hypersonic weapons tests as has the United States over the last decade.” The US is “not yet doing all we need to do” in the field, but he made it clear that the US’ goal is not simply to remain even with challengers.

“I didn’t take this job to maintain parity,” he said. “I want to ‘see and raise’ them.” The US has to be better than any challengers in the hypersonics arena, and “anyone who doesn’t see it that way, …I have no time for you.”

Griffin’s top policy priority will be to restore speed to the acquisition system, so that urgently needed capabilities can be deployed swiftly and in time to deal with pop-up challenges. The F-117 went from proposal to a usable capability in 32 months, he said, but the typical time to state a requirement and see it through to initial operational capability today is “taking 16 and a half years,” Griffin said. China manages the same thing in only three, he added.

“The Chinese love our acquisition system,” Griffin opined. “They take delight in it.” He also said, “It’s a good thing we’re a rich country” because the US wastes so much on unneeded steps in procurement. “In the end, we get it right,” but the luxury of time is no longer available.

American military superiority was “bought for us by our forebears,” he added, but “our generation has been busy wasting that away.” China absolutely seeks to become a world challenger to the US, but wants to get its way “without a fight.” They could gain that leverage through a superior military “unless we do something about it,” Griffin warned.

Griffin said the need to stay ahead of peer adversaries is so urgent that he may waive certain parts of the acquisition process, and will be pushing decision authority to much lower levels. There will be “fewer reviews, more rapid reviews, and more reviews in parallel instead of in series.” He doesn’t expect that either the Secretary or Deputy Secretary of Defense will “overrule” him on that, because they also want to inject greater speed into the acquisition process. And, “I don’t care about people who can’t overrule me.”

Moreover, Congress created the job he has last year specifically to speed the system up and make drastic changes, so he expects little pushback from Capitol Hill.

There’s little danger in pushing program authority lower, Griffin said. The average age of program managers during the Apollo era was 29, he said, and good program managers will have demonstrated they’re ready for a step up and to be held responsible.

“You get promoted when and if you show your boss you know how to do your last job,” he said. Those that don’t like it should “grow up.”

The future of space acquisition is in smaller, easily replaced satellites, not “exquisite” satellites upon which the US becomes too dependent, which simply makes attractive targets, Griffin said.

“We have to build for conflict,” he said. “We’re going to take losses so we can’t rely on exquisite assets.”

Griffin said he will be more tolerant of mistakes as long as program managers recognize what went wrong and move to fix it quickly. What creates the expense of red tape in acquisition is the onerous paperwork necessary to avoid mistakes and failures, mainly so the program manager can say that if he failed, “he was doing all the things he was supposed to.” Griffin said he plans to “send a message” to program managers that if their projects fail—but in a productive way—“I’ll let him live.”

There will be no default use of either fixed-price or cost-plus contracts, Griffin said. Both have perils, he noted, and both have been the vogue in the past. Fixed-price is inappropriate for a development program where there’s much to invent, because of the danger the contractor will use up all the money available and demand more or go bankrupt, leaving the military without the capability it needs. “I tend to be skeptical of fixed-price,” Griffin said. Cost-plus, on the other hand, often amounts to a blank check “with the taxpayer’s money.”

“You’ll see us doing cost-plus when we have the expertise to do it” in-house, he said, noting that to work right, there must be true expertise in the acquisition cadre. Fixed-price will only work if all the stakeholders swear not to change the requirements, which must be well understood.

Recalling his childhood enjoyment of an Erector Set, Griffin said he can remember that “zero times … did I do everything right the first time” in building things out of the toy. In defense acquisition, “we should accept” the reality that little goes perfectly without any setbacks.