By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The US defense sector is having a remarkable year on Capitol Hill. In fact, it is batting 1.000 so far, with three of four congressional defense panels protecting weapon programs and adding funds to buy platforms the military didn’t even request.
Despite months of dire warnings and gloomy rhetoric about the ramifications of new rounds of across-the-board cuts, the House Appropriations Committee Defense (HAC-D) subcommittee on May 30 approved a 2015 Pentagon spending bill that would give the Defense Department $570.4 billion. It would add funds for fighter jets, electronic-attack planes and maintain 11 aircraft carriers.
The bill includes a $491 billion defense appropriations bill and a separate $79.4 billion overseas contingency operations (OCO), or war funding, section. That $491 billion figure is $5 billion lower than the Pentagon’s $496 billion base budget request. When factoring in another $5 billion in military construction, which the panel does not oversee, the HAC-D’s portion of the base budget roughly matches the Pentagon’s request.
One analyst and defense-sector consultant said the bill “provides a robust level of technology investment within spending caps established by the  Budget Control Act.”
“The proposed level of spending on combat systems and services doesn’t provide much reason for selling defense stocks,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “The subcommittee’s plans sound like good news for the military contractors — especially the big companies that integrate signature war-fighting platforms.”
While defense executives and hawkish lawmakers have warned a 10 percent annual cut to the Pentagon budget will neuter the military and the defense industrial base, Thompson noted the HAC-D bill would, if enacted, mean “the US continues to spend as much on advanced military technology as the rest of the world combined.”
For weapon systems, the HAC-D’s version of the bill would send the Pentagon $91.2 billion to award to arms manufacturers, $1.6 billion more than the Obama administration requested. Like House and Senate authorizers, the House appropriations bill protects systems the Pentagon wanted to cut and added funds for ones it did not request.
Specifically, it calls for $5.8 billion next year to buy 38 Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighters, four more than requested.
Following the lead of the House and Senate Armed Services committee markups last month, the HAC-D wants to maintain an 11-aircraft carrier fleet. It found $789 million to shift toward refueling the carrier George Washington, which would keep that number of flattops in the active rotation.
In a big win for Boeing, the HAC-D bill shifts $975 million for the 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets the Navy wanted but opted to exclude from its 2015 request. Another win for the Chicago-based company came in the $1.6 billion the subpanel is proposing for the Air Force’s KC-46A aerial tanker program.
“This [weapons] funding will help ensure our nation’s military readiness by providing the necessary platforms, weapons and other equipment our forces need to train, maintain our force and conduct successful operations,” states the subcommittee’s summary.
In a further win for the Pentagon and US arms makers, the bill proposes $63.4 billion for weapons research and development, nearly $370 million above the 2014 enacted amount, and $171 million more than the administration sought.
That includes fully funding the Pentagon’s requests for the F-35, KC-46A, the Air Force’s new long-range bomber program, the Navy’s unmanned carrier-based drone aircraft initiative, the sea service’s next-generation submarine, the Army-Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle effort, the Navy’s P8-A multimission maritime aircraft initiative and its RQ-4 Triton UAV.
Thompson said the bill further underscores that “the Army is struggling to fund an adequate modernization program.”
Still, he added, “the key priorities of the Air Force and Navy are supported by the bill.”
The House is in recess this week. A committee aide said the full Appropriations Committee likely will take up the defense bill the week of June 9. And when it does, it is very likely amendments will bring even more good news to the defense sector.
The HAC-D mark of a 2015 military spending bill does not mention the Air Force’s A-10 attack plane fleet, which service officials are proposing to retire to save money. House and Senate authorizers found budgetary offsets to block the move, and the full House Appropriations Committee likely will take up an amendment to do the same when it marks up the bill.
During numerous hearings about the 2015 defense spending request, senior civilian and uniformed officials warned lawmakers that ongoing sequestration cuts would make the military less ready to do a number of missions around the globe.
To that end, “the bill includes an additional $1.2 billion to fill readiness shortfalls, [and] $721 million to restore unrealistic reductions in the president’s request to facility sustainment and modernization,” according to the summary.
The bill’s inclusion of the $79.4 billion for the OCO accounts comes one day after senior White House officials took to cable news to describe the cost of keeping President Barack Obama’s desired 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan next year: $20 billion.
It is expected that the administration will request more than that amount for operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, however.
Lawmakers have expressed frustration for months about their inability to get a sense of just how large the 2015 OCO fund would need to be, saying senior administration officials have been uncooperative on that topic.
On May 28, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., echoed members of both parties in saying White House officials “are very hard to work with.”
During a forum at Washington’s George Washington University, Rogers said getting any notion from the White House about the OCO figure has been “the most frustrating” experience he can recall.