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Trump Picks Former NASA Chief to Head New Pentagon Tech Office

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin talks with employees during a NASA Update program at NASA Headquarters, Tuesday, June 28, 2005, in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin talks with employees during a NASA Update program at NASA Headquarters, Tuesday, June 28, 2005, in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In a potential boost for Air Force space and weapons programs, President Donald Trump has nominated former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to become the Pentagon's first under secretary of defense for research and engineering.

Griffin, an advocate for human space exploration and a mission to Mars, led NASA from 2005 to early 2009.

NASA proponents, such as Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, argued for Griffin's retention but President Barack Obama replaced him with retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former astronaut.

After NASA, Griffin, a 68-year-old physicist, was named an eminent scholar and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The White House announcement late Monday of the nomination said Griffin most recently had been chairman and chief executive officer of Schafer Corp., an aerospace firm.

The firm's website says its military aerospace teams have focused on weapons systems development and deployment in space.

If confirmed by the Senate, Griffin's arrival at the Defense Department will be part of the congressionally mandated shake-up of what had been the office of the under secretary of acquisition, technology and logistics, or AT&L.

By Feb. 1, the office of AT&L was to be split into two separate jobs -- the under secretary for acquisition and sustainment, or A&S; and a new under secretary for research and engineering, or R&E, who would essentially be a chief technology officer.

The split was opposed by Frank Kendall, the former head of AT&L, who left the Pentagon when President Donald Trump took office.

"I don't think the break-up is a good thing," Kendall, who was the chief weapons buyer at the Pentagon for nearly five years, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last January.

"I am not a believer in acquisition magic," he said. "It's all about hard work and attention to detail. He also cautioned against naming someone to his job with a business background but no experience at the Defense Department or in military service.

Kendall, a West Point graduate who left the Army as a lieutenant colonel, noted the unique culture of the military and the sometimes conflicting needs of the services. "Bringing somebody in who does not have the experience working in that environment I think is a disservice," he said.

In August, Ellen Lord, a longtime top executive at Textron Systems, was confirmed by the Senate as the new head of AT&L. She is slated to become the new under secretary for acquisition and sustainment when the split of the acquisitions office takes place in February.

One of the questions remaining from the musical chairs shake-up at the Pentagon is what will happen to several semi-independent research offices, such as the futuristic Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA])and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx.

They could now be folded into Griffin's new office as under secretary for research and engineering.

Griffin's background suggests he will be on the same wavelength as Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

At the Reagan National Defense Forum in California over the weekend, Hyten said that future conflicts "will move into space."

"If it does move into space, our job will be the same as it is in any other domain -- to deter that conflict to make sure that conflict never happens, but if it does happen, to figure out how to fight it and win," Hyten said.

At the same forum, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson backed up Hyten and said the Air Force needs to move more quickly, noting the service needs to "stop studying things to death and get capability in orbit for the warfighter."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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