Lawmakers threaten DoD's No. 2 over 'stalled' cruise missile decision

Last updated on July 4, 2022

A House subcommittee plans to impose restrictions on the travel budget for Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks in a hardball move to force her to decide which Pentagon entity is responsible for developing defenses against cruise missiles.

The rare legislative step by the House Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee comes after Pentagon officials told lawmakers that Hicks’ inaction was holding back some efforts to employ improved defenses, the panel’s chair, Rep. Jim Cooper, told POLITICO in a statement on Monday.

What’s planned: The provision is expected to be included in the panel’s markup of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which it will take up on Wednesday.

“The issue was raised by several officials in the Department as a reason some efforts to improve cruise missile defense of the homeland have stalled,” Cooper said.

He said the Pentagon’s policy office told the panel that a “package” was awaiting approval by Hicks.

“We are hoping this language will push for a timely decision so critical work can continue on the cruise missile defense architecture,” Cooper added.

Eric Pahon, a spokesperson for Hicks, told POLITICO that the package Cooper is referring to “is not yet with the deputy secretary’s office.”

In a follow-up statement, Cooper also said that the Pentagon policy office “indicated that the decision would be made by the Deputy Secretary.”

The backstory: The Pentagon has been working to finalize a new strategy for combating cruise missiles, which can be launched from the ground, aircraft or ships at hypersonic speeds that are difficult to track and can overwhelm current defenses.

A major question remains as to which DoD agency or service should be tasked with overseeing the effort.

Sen. Deb Fischer, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces panel, pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in April to name an overall acquisition authority for cruise missile defense.

Years overdue: The Nebraska Republican dinged the Pentagon at an April budget hearing for deferring a decision Congress mandated several years ago. Nebraska is home to the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command, which plays a role in tracking enemy missiles.

Austin responded that the Pentagon would “move out smartly on” making a designation, though he didn’t give a timeline.

“Given the increasing cruise missile threat to the United States, again, I think it’s important that we make this designation,” Fischer told Austin. “It was in the 2017 NDAA, and that was a long time ago.”

“So I hope that you will step up and do this,” she added.

A former government official who was briefed on the HASC deliberations said Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill has pushed hard behind the scenes for his agency, which is responsible for building defenses against ballistic missiles, to be in charge of the cruise missile effort as well.

Hill told reporters in March that cruise missiles are “increasing in sophistication and lethality.”

“Cruise missiles follow unpredictable flight paths and are now capable of supersonic and hypersonic speeds,” he said. “Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles that can be launched from aircraft, ground launchers, and ships or submarines, along with hypersonic missile capabilities.”

John Plumb, assistant secretary for space policy, also told Cooper’s subcommittee last month that “there’s still work on cruise missile defense of the entire homeland.”

“And there’s literally billions in the President’s budget request, including nearly $5 billion for a more robust and resilient architecture to track ballistic and hypersonic weapons,” he added.

What’s next: The HASC’s seven subcommittees are marking up their portions of the NDAA on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by the full committee on June 22. The Senate plans to consider its defense bill next week.

The former government official called the panel’s tactic to hold Hicks’ travel budget hostage “exceedingly rare.” Committees usually make such policy frustrations known but don’t normally threaten such punitive action.

Cooper is retiring from Congress after his term is up in January.