Kennedy Leaves SDA Amid String of High-Level Defense Departures

Fred Kennedy

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Well, that was fast.

Fred Kennedy has resigned his job as head of the Defense Department’s new Space Development Agency (SDA) after a mere months on the job. He returned to the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), from which he had been detailed.

The new agency, whose purpose is to cut through the Pentagon’s red tape and quickly field new space systems, is under the authority of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin.

Kennedy’s decision comes amid a series of high-level departures at the Department of Defense that will affect the Pentagon’s ability to modernize space acquisition and the Trump Administration’s drive to establish an independent space force as a sixth branch of the Armed Services.

Breaking Defense reports on the possible reasons for Kennedy’s departure:

Several sources say there has been turmoil in Griffin’s shop — which also oversees the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) — for some time. These sources say that Griffin’s management has been uneven, and that there are tensions with him, and his deputy Lisa Porter, that are transmitting down the chain as she tried to impose his orders.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who had made the SDA one of his top priorities, also resigned this week. His bid to become confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary was torpedoed by reports of domestic violence incidents with his former wife.

SpaceNews reports that Shanahan’s departure, disagreements with Griffin, and weak support for SDA likely played a role in Kennedy’s departure:

It is not clear exactly what prompted Kennedy to resign. According to two sources, he and Griffin were not seeing eye to eye on how the SDA should be run.

Babb, the DoD spokeswoman, told SpaceNews that Shanahan’s departure is not expected to impact the SDA. “There is no change to the mission or activities of the Space Development Agency. SDA will drive the department’s future threat-driven space architecture and will accelerate the development and fielding of the new military space capabilities necessary to ensure our technological and military advantage in space for national defense.”

Several sources told SpaceNews that the agency might not get the same level of support it got from Shanahan and that there are still factions in the Pentagon that don’t see a real purpose for the SDA and view it as duplicative of what other organizations do in the Air Force.

Kennedy’s departure came on the heels of the departure of Chris Shank, who headed up the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). Breaking Defense reports the departure came after Griffin decided to move the office to DARPA.

“My integrity and belief in SCO’s mission is more important to me than my friendship over many years with Mike (Griffin).” That is why the head of the Pentagon’s vaunted Strategic Capabilities Office, Chris Shank, has resigned rather than see his office transferred to DARPA.

Griffin called Shank into his office on Friday and told him the office would be transferred and asked for Shank’s resignation. He agreed and immediately resigned.

Griffin has pushed hard for the transfer of the SCO but Rep. Mac Thornberry, top HASC Republican, added language calling for more study of the move in the HASC National Defense Authorization Act markup last Wednesday. The Senate Armed Services Committee added similar language. They are not alone in opposing the transfer of SCO, which has been seen as the lead Pentagon office for taking advanced technologies and getting them into the hands of troops quickly, within two to five years. DARPA is not designed to do that.

Finally, John Stopher has submitted his resignation as the U.S. Air Force’s deputy secretary for space. Stopher had worked closely with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in addressing the Trump Administration’s goal of establishing a space force.

Wilson was generally opposed to an independent space force. She left the Pentagon for the private sector at the end of May.

The turmoil at the Pentagon comes as Congress has pushed back against Trump’s plan for a space force. House and Senate bills for fiscal year 2020 call for a reorganization of space capabilities under the U.S. Air Force.