Debate Rages Over Usefulness of Pentagon’s New Space Development Agency

Mike Griffin

A debate has raged in the Pentagon over whether the new Space Development Agency will transform the acquisition of new systems, or merely unnecessarily duplicate existing capabilities within the Defense Department’s sprawling bureaucracy.

On one side of the argument are the agency’s champions, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Griffin oversees the new agency, which is run by Fred Kennedy.

On the other side is outgoing secretary of the U.S. Air Force. Defense News reports:

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s memo, dated Feb. 28, offers a scathing rebuke of the Space Development Agency, a pet project for both acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin.

The top Air Force official argues that the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD, has not adequately laid out how to transfer the authority of the SDA to the Space Force, which was provisioned in a Jan. 19 memo by the defense secretary titled “Guidance for the Establishment of the Space Development Agency.”

The SDA also “appears to replicate existing ones already ordered by Congress,” she wrote. She points to a memo by the OSD, which states that the SDA would be modeled on organizations like the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, even as the service Air Force has launched a space-focused version of the agency called the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.

“Until the Space Development Agency has a uniquely identifiable mission that cannot be accomplished by current organizations, the plan should not move forward,” she wrote.

SpaceNews reports that Griffin has dismissed these concerns:

Griffin has frequently blasted the Pentagon’s traditional procurement organizations for being slow and bound to “legacy thinking.” But he rejected the idea that the SDA is out to engage in a turf war with the Air Force, arguing that the new agency will fill space technology needs that are currently not being met. “We don’t have the time, the money, the brainpower or the energy to do duplicative things,” Griffin said.

He said he could not comment on why the Air Force fought against the SDA but he also made it clear that Wilson ultimately was overruled by Shanahan. “It took months of process to get the agency created, that’s not the same as saying that everybody agreed. Everybody didn’t agree. That’s unfortunate but it’s a fact.”

The SDA will be based at the Pentagon and is projected to have about 100 people. Its first job will be to design and architect a constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit that will be used for communications and surveillance, what Griffin calls a “proliferated LEO sensor and communications transport layer.” The idea is to use commercially produced satellites and payloads as a foundation for future designs of military constellations that would be more resilient to disruptions or attacks than traditional, larger and more expensive military spacecraft.