The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved the nominations of Mike Griffin to be under secretary of defense for research and engineering and Will Roper to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. At their confirmation hearing, the nominees outlined the need for DOD to better exploit its R&D as it strives to field next-generation technologies.
On Jan. 23, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved by voice vote the nominations of Mike Griffin to be under secretary of defense for research and engineering (USD(R&E)) and Will Roper to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. The nominations now proceed to the full Senate, where their confirmation is not expected to be problematic.
The committee’s approval followed a confirmation hearing five days earlier at which the two nominees testified about their prospective positions, alongside nominees for two other positions. Griffin and Roper both stressed the need for the Department of Defense to improve its ability to transition projects rapidly from R&D into successful acquisition programs. In his testimony and responses to written questions, Griffin also discussed his vision for the new USD(R&E) position, which DOD is implementing with a Feb. 1 deadline in accord with the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.
Technology transfer a key theme of the hearing
Griffin’s and Roper’s focus on rapidly transitioning technologies from R&D into acquisition mirrors the current concerns of DOD and Congress. Rapid transitioning was a central principle of the Third Offset Strategy championed by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter as well as by Roper in his current role as director of DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office. Although use of the “Third Offset” terminology has waned, the strategy’s goals informed the rationale behind Congress’ creation of the USD(R&E) position and they are reflected in DOD’s new National Defense Strategy.
Asked by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) about how to help technologies cross the “valley of death” into practical application, Griffin affirmed it is a major problem, saying,
We don’t suffer from lack of innovation, we suffer from the inability to get [innovative technologies] into operational systems. A friend of mine once said that it’s a little bit like Dante’s Inferno — ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ — when it comes to technology transition.
Griffin said much of the difficulty stems from the disconnect between people who work in R&D and people who acquire equipment, noting that urgent demands on the latter group leave them reluctant to commit resources to longer-term transition efforts. He continued,
So, one of the things I’d like to do, as just an idea if I’m confirmed, is I’d like to more formalize the role of transition offices. … If we think we have a problem with transition … I think the first step in solving it is to put someone in charge of it and give them that task.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked Griffin how he would maintain the link between acquisition and R&D once the latter function is split off from the under secretary responsible for acquisition. Griffin replied he supports the split because it “elevates the role of development.” He also said the prospect of better integrating development with acquisition was a major reason he accepted his nomination.
Both Griffin and Roper repeatedly emphasized that prototyping and testing play a vital but underappreciated role in the engineering of new technologies, helping to ensure successful acquisition. Responding to a question from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) about the need to tolerate more risk in technology development, Roper argued that failure and testing go hand in hand, remarking,
We’ve moved into a culture where we test to verify not test to learn, and for these very complicated warfighting challenges like missile defense we need to know where the system breaks.
Griffin bullish on pathbreaking technologies
Over the course of the hearing, Griffin identified several R&D areas that he feels require decisive commitment.
Replying to a question from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) about Chinese competition, Griffin said that China is moving forward aggressively with pathbreaking technologies. He reported, “In a field in which I am particularly interested, hypersonics, for example, they have done something like 20 times as many flight vehicle tests as we have done over a comparable period. … Why are we allowing that to happen?”
Asked about directed energy by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Griffin said, “My support in the professional community for directed energy weapons … is longstanding. The last time I was in the Pentagon, 27 years ago, I owned, under the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, our nation’s directed energy research and development. We have, in the intervening years, given that less priority by far than I think it deserves.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) asked about the prospects of boost-phase missile defense. Griffin replied that Congress has been ahead of DOD in its advocacy for the technology but that he strongly supports it. “What we have lacked in the missile defense arena, until recently, is the will, not the technology and not the means,” he said.
Replying to a question from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) about the development of trusted microelectronics, Griffin said the issue is one of his "personal hot buttons" and that national security concerns would justify government support to sustain the industry domestically.
Griffin weighs in on basic research, DOD labs, STEM ed
Griffin also provided written answers to 162 questions from committee members covering a wider range of policy subjects.
Replying to a series of questions about DOD’s support for basic research, Griffin called it “a critical component of our future military capabilities.” He wrote that, if confirmed, he “would continually assess our investments in basic science and discovery in terms of the people we fund, the quality of their research, the transition of their efforts into applied research, and/or the influence they have in driving the development of technology options to meet warfighter needs.”
Griffin also wrote that he regards the quality of the personnel in DOD’s own labs as “excellent,” but he nevertheless would plan to “assess the current quality, technical capabilities, and mission performance” of the labs and make changes if necessary. He noted that during his time as NASA administrator, he had rebalanced personnel among the agency’s research centers, filling hiring needs in some centers by diverting staff charged to “overhead” from others. He reported that this reduced “excess capacity” from about 3,000 to 300 people and helped expose research centers to new perspectives.
Griffin also expressed concerns about recruiting and retaining talent and coping with an impending wave of retirements from the “graying” DOD science and engineering workforce. Asked whether there is a “crisis” in STEM education, he answered that there is, citing that in 2012 only 5 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees awarded were in engineering fields versus 32 percent in China. He wrote that, as the federal government’s largest employer of scientists and engineers, DOD has a strong stake in advancing STEM education.