WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee has approved a 2014 defense authorization bill that largely adopts the Obama administration’s Pentagon buying plans and ignores the next year of sequestration.
But the bill, approved in the wee hours of Thursday morning, diverts from the administration’s defense budget plan by green-lighting an East Coast missile defense shield and placing some stipulations on major program funding.
The House panel’s bill would clear the Pentagon to spend up to $552.1 billion in 2014. That level is larger than the $526.6 billion the Obama administration is seeking for the Defense Department.
HASC Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said in a statement that he is “proud” of the bill. “Despite important disagreements on key issues, our members have never failed to come to a consensus on behalf of our fighting men and women,” he said.
Panel Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a separate statement the bill has “flaws” and vowed to address those on the House floor. “This bill provides our military with the resources and equipment necessary to accomplish their missions and safeguard national security,” he said.
Like the Obama administration’s defense budget plan — and entire federal spending blueprint — the HASC’s defense authorization bill ignores the second year of sequestration. Under sequester, about $50 billion in across-the-board cuts to nonexempt national defense accounts is set to kick in later this year unless Congress and Obama agree on a major fiscal deal that replaces the defense cuts with other deficit-reduction items.
With talks toward that kind of “grand bargain” stalled, a senior HASC aide told reporters this week his panel and all others that fail to legislate to spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act are “living in a fantasy world.”
So far, the House and Senate have passed ideologically different budget resolutions that fit that description. And House authorizers and appropriators soon followed suit.
The panel’s bill “points out the necessity of removing sequestration,” Smith. said. “For some time now, this committee has highlighted the damaging effects of sequestration, and we have witnessed over the last year the damaging impact it has on our military.
“Sequestration is no longer a hypothetical — we have seen the serious damage that it causes,” Smith said. “If Congress does not act, the situation is only going to get worse and the work we have done to support our troops through this bill will not be fully realized.”
So far, no one in Washington has acted on sequestration.
East Coast Shield
The panel did act late Wednesday evening on a GOP proposal to erect a missile defense system on the East Coast of the United States. By a 33-27 roll call vote, the panel proposed green-lighting the controversial site.
One day after the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee unveiled a 2014 Pentagon spending bill that would allocate just more than $70 million to begin erecting the shield, HASC members approved an amendment offered by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, that would require the site be ready to go later this decade.
“The Missile Defense Agency shall construct and make operational in fiscal year 2018 an additional homeland missile defense site capable of protecting the homeland, designed to complement existing sites in Alaska and California, to deal more effectively with the long-range ballistic missile threat from the Middle East,” states the amendment, offered by GOP Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio.
The amendment does not approve a specific funding level for the project, but it does order the Missile Defense Agency to deliver Congress a report that includes “a description of the current estimate of the funding to be required for construction and deployment of the missile defense site, including for advance procurement, engineering and design, materials and construction, interceptor missiles, and sensors.”
If eventually built, the project could provide a boost to US missile interceptor makers, radar manufacturers and their suppliers, while also giving an economic boost to the states in which it would be erected.
The East Coast proposal still has a long way to go before becoming reality. Skeptical Senate Democrats, including upper chamber Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, must first sign off. If approved, the East Coast site would create new expenditures within a Pentagon budget that faces caps. It’s unclear what might get cut to make room for the site.
Nearly two dozen defense analysts this week warned lawmakers and Pentagon brass that unless they deal with ever-rising personnel and infrastructure costs, sequestration will gut the military’s weapons procurement funding.
But before that occurs, HASC’s bill mostly approves the administration’s weapons procurement plans.
On Navy programs, HASC approved a section of the bill crafted by its Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee that would lift a cost cap on the sea service’s new aircraft carrier, CVN 78, from $11.755 billion to $12.9 billion.
The legislation also would, among other naval moves, require the Navy to describe to Congress its likely fleet size assuming an annual shipbuilding budget of $16 billion.
During the opening minutes of its Wednesday mark up, the HASC approved an amendment offered by Seapower subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., that raises “significant concerns” about the Littoral Combat Ship program.
“The committee has significant concerns regarding the levels of concurrency associated with the mission modules and the expected delivery of the Littoral Combat Ship seaframes,” according to the voice-vote approved measure. It would, if included in the final version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, require a sweeping Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of many aspects of the LCS program.
On Air Force programs, the committee moved to keep the service’s Global Hawk remotely piloted vehicles flying and also gave several boosts to the troubled F-35 fighter program.
US Air Force officials have been trying to retire their fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, but HASC again is blocking the plan. The panel’s bill would, if the provision is enacted, require the Air Force secretary “to take all actions necessary to maintain the operational capability” of the Global Hawk and to keep them flying though 2016.
The Global Hawk was once touted as the replacement for the U-2 manned spy plane, but USAF leadership has since concluded that the service would be better off scrapping the Block 30 aircraft while continuing to use the U-2.
The F-35 program was treated kindly by the committee, which adopted the administration’s full spending request for the program. HASC also proposed an independent panel that would be appointed “to review the development of software for the F-35 aircraft program,” with a report due by March 2014.
During its mark up, the full panel overwhelmingly (51-10 opposed) killed an amendment offered by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., that would have temporarily locked the program’s funding.
The former Army helicopter pilot proposed prohibiting the Air Force and Navy departments from buying F-35s or F-135 engines. The freeze would have been lifted only after the Pentagon certified reams of data about the program.
Specifically, Duckworth’s amendment sought Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s certification that all testing and other efforts to deal with the fighter’s software are complete, and that problems with its helmet-based avionics are being remedied. It also would have required production contracts to meet certain standards.
But Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee Chairman Turner warned the amendment would have triggered another one-year delay and further driven up costs. It soon was resoundingly defeated in a roll-call vote.
The full committee approved the subcommittee’s portion of the bill, which would prohibit the Army from awarding a production contract for the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program until the service submits a report to lawmakers.
The Army plans to award an engineering, manufacturing and development contract to only one vendor before making a production decision in 2019, which the service estimates would save about $2.5 billion in development costs in the long run.
The committee worries “that weapon system programs that enter EMD too early without enough ‘knowledge’ can pose a significant risk to the government,” and demands that the secretary of the Army submit a report outlining how the investment carries minimal risk.
Finally, in a sign that DoD is in store for some big changes in the coming post-Afghanistan world, the committee proposes the Army submit to Congress a plan for “the future role of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and to provide this plan to the congressional defense committees not later than 60 days after the enactment of this Act.”
The legislation is slated to hit the House floor next week, an HASC aide said. During debate, controversial amendments on the East Coast site, Afghanistan and other matters are expected.
-- Staff Writers Christopher P. Cavas and Paul McLeary contributed.