By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) early Thursday unanimously approved a measure that would authorize just over $600 billion in 2015 US defense spending and block plans to retire the A-10 attack plane.
After a marathon markup session, the committee easily approved its version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that includes a $495.8 billion base Pentagon budget level and $79.4 billion more for an overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget.
The bill, which also authorizes $17.9 billion in Energy Department defense programs and $7.9 billion in mandatory defense spending, could grow even larger. That’s because the OCO amount is a placeholder; senior lawmakers expect the White House will send over an exact amount for the war in Afghanistan and other needs before the bill hits the House floor, likely this spring.
The $495.4 billion — if the final amount authorized and appropriated for the Pentagon — would be cut by around $35 billion because sequestration remains in place. That sequestration cut amount was reduced by $9 billion under December’s bipartisan budget deal.
Even with that pending sequester cut, the HASC measure’s funding level would clear the way for around $565 billion in US military spending for fiscal 2015, with the final OCO level to come.
HASC Ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Smith of Washington criticized the measure for punting tough decisions on weapons programs and other matters to the future.
“As I have outlined vigorously throughout this process, this bill … neglects to make some of the difficult choices necessary to confront our long-term fiscal challenges,” Smith said in a statement. “I understand none of the choices we are faced with are popular, or what any of us want, but that does not give us an excuse to undermine our military readiness. As we move to the floor and then to conference with the Senate, I encourage my colleagues to look beyond parochial interests and focus on what is good for our country.”
Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., in his own statement called the measure “the gold standard for congressional bipartisanship and transparency.” During the markup, McKeon and other Republicans stressed the need to, as the bill does, protect weapon systems — as well as block proposed cuts to troop levels, in case Congress finds a way to get rid of sequestration and defense spending caps.
Support For the Warthog
The most high-profile amendment passed by the committee came late in the nearly 13-hour session: a bipartisan measure that would, if included in the final bill, block the Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10 fleet to save money.
The amendment was offered by Republican Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Austin Scott of Georgia, as well as Democratic Rep. Ron Barbor of Arizona. Initially, the amendment failed via voice vote — though it sounded like there were more supporters. The measure later passed 41-20 in a roll-call vote.
The amendment kills a compromise on the A-10 inserted into the bill by McKeon that called for the aircraft to be placed in “type-1000 storage,” meaning they would be wrapped in latex but be able to return to active duty.
Instead, the bipartisan amendment prohibits such a move, or a retirement, until the US comptroller general makes a number of certifications and completes several studies, including a report to evaluate all Air Force platforms that are used for close-air-support (CAS) missions.
The comptroller general also would be required to assess the cost per plane for conducting CAS missions, such as whether other aircraft are able to successfully perform CAS missions, and the capabilities of each plane used in that role.
Late Wednesday evening, the panel approved, via voice vote, another bipartisan amendment. This one, offered by Reps. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and William Enyart, D-Ill., blocks Army plans to shrink its force and shift Apache helicopters from the Guard to the active force.
Those plans would be blocked unless the US comptroller general signs off on a list of data used by the Army to justify its end-strength shrinkage and Apache transfer proposals.
The intricate measure directs the comptroller general to look at very specific things, such as any “analyses of counter proposals” submitted to Army and Army National Guard leaders — and conducted by the Army or the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop — that were used to make any proposals.
It also orders the comptroller general to look at the force-structure model used in the Army’s 2015 budget plan, as well as cost-analysis models used to determine which aviation platforms should reside in the active force and the Guard. Finally, the comptroller general must examine operational-readiness rates for the last five years for the platforms that comprise Army and Guard aviation brigades.
Notably, minutes before the voice vote, McKeon informed his members that the A-10 is no longer performing CAS missions in Afghanistan.
The committee measure protects a slew of weapon programs, which was the theme of the session. One such measure includes raiding accounts used for service contracts and other non-weapons accounts.
Those transfers, unveiled Monday as part of McKeon’s legislation, would give the services billions in order to refuel the aircraft carrier George Washington, develop missile defenses with Israel, buy EA-18G aircraft and upgrade Abrams tanks — projects not budgeted in the Obama administration’s 2015 Pentagon spending request.
The bill would shift $796.2 million to refuel the GW and maintain an 11-carrier fleet, $450 million for five EA-18Gs, $348 million for the “Israeli Cooperative Missile Defense” program, $800 million for the Navy’s amphibious ship program and $120 million for the Abrams upgrades.
It also proposes $82 million for 96 Tomahawk missiles, $80 million for body armor and over $240 million for three combat vehicle programs.
To protect those programs, others took hits. That list includes the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization ($49.5 million), Littoral Combat Ship program ($350 million), Energy Department uranium enrichment fund ($100 million).
Notably, $817.5 million from accounts used to pay for service contracts would be tapped.
Speaking Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation, McKeon acknowledged he had to “nickle and dime some programs” to protect others. But, he warned, lawmakers will not be able to do so next year. In short, there just won’t be enough programs able to be raided for such transfers, McKeon said.
The committee also passed a long list of amendments and several en bloc amendment packages.
Included in one was an amendment offered by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that “encourages” the Navy to use advanced procurement dollars to build at least two Boeing Super Hornets per month.
Hartzler’s amendment does not require the Navy to do anything. Rather, it “encourages the chief of naval operations to utilize the advanced procurement funds for F/A-18E/F aircraft in [fiscal 2014] ($75 million) to extend the production line to a minimum production rate of two aircraft per month” in order to complement Boeing-made E/A-18G Growler electronic aircraft production plans.
Republicans and Democrats sparred over an amendment that would increase funding for efforts to dismantle some of America’s nuclear arms. The amendment, offered by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., was later killed by HASC Republicans.
For LCS, Choppy Waters
The panel approved an amendment to offered by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that would block all funding for LCS mission modules until senior Pentagon and Navy officials deliver some assurances to lawmakers.
One would be to provide the Navy secretary’s plan for the program’s Milestone B costs, schedule and performance “for each increment.”
Another would be a certification by the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation (OT&E) “with respect to the total number for each module type that is required to perform all necessary operational testing.”
The OT&E office has in the past been critical of the LCS program. In its latest report, released in January, the office found “performance, reliability, and operator training deficiencies,” and other alleged problems with the mission packages.