Dr. Michael Griffin is America’s Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. He is the Defense Department’s top technology officer and the man directly responsible for keeping America No. 1 in military technology. He’s also a frequent speaker and attendee at the annual Space & Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Ala., where many of America’s missile defense agencies, missile commands and defense industries are found.
Griffin spoke to the symposium Wednesday night and opened the floor to questions from the defense and missile industry figures in attendance. This lightly edited transcript shows what these insiders wanted to know, what Griffin had to say, and how they talk about space and defense in America’s Rocket City:
Q: Can you share with us your thoughts about high-energy laser weapons and other directed-energy things and where we need to go as a nation?
A: First of all, many of you have heard me say we need to get it out of the lab and onto platforms so we can try it out. There are three major categories of “thing” I think we need to do and in which we are investing.
Thing One is lethality. We’ve shot targets and burned holes in things and blown up pressurized tanks and stuff like that. It’s good stuff to do. But we don’t have an organized, understood, comprehensive, authoritative data base on what power, what energy we need on target for different kinds of targets and different kinds of materials, so we know what we have to do to affect a kill. We know something, but we don’t know what we need to do. So, lethality.
Beam control. We have to be able, especially if directed energy is going to be anything but a space weapon – and if it’s only ever going to be a space weapon, my guess is it won’t happen – we need to be able to control the beam through sea level turbulence, through platform motion, through disturbances, and keep the beam on target. Now, we have the math to do that and we have the processes to do that, but we have to get those things built and get them into the field to try them out. It can’t be just inside the laboratory.
Thirdly, we need laser scaling. We’ve got several different kinds of technologies … and within those, several sub-flavors. It may be that all of them work out. But we need to explore which ones are most likely.
The next thing we need to remember is it’s not all about lasers…. High power microwaves may be the weapon of choice.
Q: As you develop the new (Defense Department) space office, how far out into space are you willing to go? You’ve got LEO (low-Earth orbit), MEO (medium-Earth orbit), GEO (high-Earth orbit). Are we going to talk about beyond there?
A: The department is looking at all orbits including out beyond GEO. They all have value to us.
Q: Have your priorities changed in the 13 months you’ve been in office?
A: As I said earlier, we’ve added 5G (fifth generation cellular network technology) for its transformational nature…. It’s pretty important to us. We also have added biotechnology as a major priority. I’ve mentioned that I’ve elevated in my own budget battles microelectronics to the No. 1 position. Recent news reports have not been lost on us. And as I mentioned earlier, unless you’re talking about your fountain pen, everything has a microprocessor in it. So we need to be able to deal with all that.
Q: On 5G, what excites you as an opportunity? What frightens you as a danger?
A: Well, I never get excited and I’m very hard to frighten. I have a number of engine failures in airplanes and other failures to prove the latter, and I’m still here. But in a world in which I might be excited … the potential of 5G to combine both longer-range wireless communication and shorter-range millimeter wave wireless communication with very high bandwidth on the shorter ranges, where you really need it to comprise the Internet of Things – to use the slang term out there – is transformational. Nobody ever went broke selling more bandwidth, and I suspect the successful purveyors of 5G technologies won’t be the first. So, I’m really interested to see how that all turns out.
Of course, the defense implications of that are obvious. If everybody’s rifle is part of the network, that’s a transformational capability. What are the threats? If there’s an entry node to your system everywhere, then every node in your system is now an attack surface – or part of the attack surface – for the enemy, and we have to figure out how we can operate safely in an untrusted environment.
And I will emphasize here that it hasn’t got anything to do with who builds the hardware. For a couple of reasons. First of all, in the DoD we send our younger folks to places they are not wanted to do things people don’t want them to do. And they will have to go places where the adversaries have build the hardware and they have to be able to operate through. They may have to be able to operate within networks we don’t suspect to be compromised, we know to be compromised. So, get over it. We have to figure out how to operate in a trusted fashion in untrusted environments. That is what the DoD does.
Q: Does China know about everything that you’re doing?
A: I operate under the assumption that China knows everything all of us are doing all of the time. I think any other assumption is foolish. Just guessing.
Look, global national security dominance is not a race with a finish line. We have to work hard all the time, and it doesn’t ever stop. It’s just like all the rest of life. You never get to rest on your laurels. So, I assume China knows what we’re doing. I assume all of us have to work hard and we have to be smart and we have to believe in the system that got us here, because we cannot out-man them.
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