'Not the Time To Experiment': Congress Moves To Bar Civilians From Leading Missile Defense Agency

Biden administration drew fierce backlash after considering non-military officer to oversee nuclear arsenal

(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
June 21, 2023

House Republicans are working to bar any civilian from leading the Missile Defense Agency after reports broke earlier this year that the Biden administration was considering nominating a non-military official to oversee the nation's nuclear defense arsenal.

The proposal is included in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act and comes months after the Washington Free Beacon reported that President Joe Biden was considering appointing a civilian for the first time to run the Missile Defense Agency—drawing concerns from the defense community. Following the backlash, Biden in May nominated Air Force major general Heath Collins to the position.

Now lawmakers are working to ensure that civilians are barred from the position in the future. The NDAA provision would "amend current law to require the director of the Missile Defense Agency to be a military officer," according to the defense funding bill. The Missile Defense Agency oversees U.S. military defense systems and coordinates with other agencies under the Department of Defense umbrella.

The push to keep the nuclear arsenal in military hands comes amid heightened aggression from Russia—which recently moved some of its warheads to Belarus as a warning to Ukraine and U.S. allies—and nuclear build-up by China and North Korea. Biden said on Monday that the chance of the Putin regime launching tactical nukes is "real."

Defense hawks and national security officials raised alarms earlier this year after the Biden administration privately told members of Congress that it was looking at non-military candidates to replace outgoing Missile Defense Agency director Jon Hill, a vice admiral. The agency's civilian deputy director, Laura DeSimone, was one of the names being floated at the time, according to congressional sources.

The possibility prompted four former agency directors in January to write a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee asking that the committee reject any non-military nominee and arguing that "it would have been impossible in our experience for this job to have been effectively executed without a senior military flag officer."

"Any suggestion that the next director could be a civilian leader should be carefully scrutinized and almost certainly rejected," wrote former Missile Defense Agency directors Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, and Vice Adm. James D. Syring.

"Now is not the time to experiment with the leadership of the agency best suited to defend against those threats to the American people, their allies and partners, and the deployed sons and daughters in uniform," the former directors wrote.

Collins, whom Biden has nominated for agency director and who has also been tapped for a promotion to lieutenant general, is the agency's program executive for ground-based weapon systems. His selection is expected to go forward without controversy, according to a Republican congressional source.