WASHINGTON – The Department of Defense needs to accept a greater amount of risk in its military space systems, the Pentagon’s top technology officer said Tuesday.
Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator now serving as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said that while failures are not ideal, the department cannot insist on the high-cost, long-timeline requirements for space programs that it traditionally has required.
“We’ve trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle of spending a lot of money on mission assurance, which makes the assets incredibly expensive, which means the launch vehicles that support them need to have near certainty,” Griffin said. “What we should be thinking about is the overall cost of the architecture we deploy.”
For the last several years, the Pentagon has been trying to shift from its traditional space setup – relying on extremely expensive, uniquely designed, high-end systems – into a disaggregated architecture featuring an increased number of smaller, and ostensibly, less expensive systems. The move has been driven by fears that a single satellite make an easy target for a potential adversary looking to take out America’s capabilities, whereas a disaggregated system would be more survivable.
But despite vocal support from Pentagon officials for such a shift, the slow speed of both the Pentagon bureaucracy and the long lead times associated with existing space system designs mean that change has yet to happen.
Griffin hopes to change that, moving more towards a “production mindset,” one where the ability to churn out small satellites associated with regular, low-cost space launch that is now available. But in doing so, he acknowledged that more risk need to be accepted by a department that famously insists on what is known as “assured launch” and shuts down launch providers for weeks or months if a mishap happens.
The theory that the Pentagon cannot afford to insist on a perfect solution undergirds Griffin’s broader view of defense acquisition, ten days after he took office.
“Somehow we have evolved to believing, as a nation, as a culture… that we had to be 100 percent right, or 99 percent right, that everything had to be perfect before we could proceed,” Griffin said during his speech at the McAleese/Credit Suisse conference Tuesday. “The consequences of not being perfect where what, that someone breaks some hardware? That doesn’t actually matter that much. That’s a cheap thing to do.”
It was also clear from Griffin’s comments that he looks at the Chinese as the potential primary antagonist for the U.S. going forward.
“The Chinese love our acquisition system,” he said. “They’re the biggest fans of our acquisition system as there can be. They certainly don’t want us to change it. They take delight in it.”
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.