WASHINGTON — The US Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved a Pentagon authorization bill that matches the White House’s nearly $527 billion 2014 military budget request.
SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Thursday evening that the version of the national defense authorization act (NDAA) his panel approved 23-3 contains “roughly the same amounts … requested by the administration.”
That means the committee’s NDAA proposes around $526.6 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget request, and $79.4 billion to fund the war in Afghanistan and other overseas conflicts. Those were the amounts requested by the Obama administration.
Both funding authorization levels set up a major issue when a House-Senate conference committee is tasked with crafting a final version of the NDAA to send to President Barack Obama.
That’s because the House Armed Services Committee-approved version would clear the Pentagon to spend up to $552.1 billion in 2014. What’s more, the House bill would approve a war-funding measure of about $85 billion.
The Senate bill mostly adopts the administration’s plans for high-profile weapon programs like the F-35 fighter and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, SASC’s top Republican, said he is concerned about previous funding delays for the F-35 program, saying that the more than $150 million withheld from the program in past years could deliver it yet another blow.
On LCS, the bill would mandate “reviews of some aspects of the program,” said Levin, who did not get into specifics about that reporting requirement.
The legislation excludes a cost cap for the Navy’s new aircraft carrier program, though a Levin and a SASC aide told reporters that panel member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pushed for language mandating one. With McCain and some influential HASC members like Virginia GOP Rep. Randy Forbes in favor of such a provision, it could be an issue for the coming conference committee.
SASC set up a major conference issue by excluding any approval of monies for a House Republican-proposed East Coast missile shield.
However, the Senate panel essentially is proposing a compromise by authorizing the Pentagon to spend funds to set up “advanced sensors” that senior military missile defense officials tell Levin would be “more effective than just missiles,” he said.
Not only would the sensors be cheaper than a new, sophisticated missile interceptor system, “they can be fielded faster.”
Levin said there is “no military requirement” for an East Coast missile shield, citing a recent letter from senior Pentagon officials stating as much. Expect Levin to use that letter when pushing back against HASC Republican leaders during the conference committee’s deliberations.
The chairman said he opposes any East Coast missile system “prior to the completion” of an ongoing Pentagon environmental assessment of potential sites required in the 2013 NDAA.
The House bill would green-light the proposed missile shield project.
“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 an amendment successfully added in committee to the House’s bill by GOP Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio.
According to a House aide, the House bill authorizes $140 million for the missile shield. It also orders 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.”
Notably, the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a 2014 Pentagon spending bill that would allocate $70 million toward the East Coast missile system.
House and Senate Republicans say the new site is needed to protect population centers in the eastern United States as Iran and North Korea continue long-range missile work. Some GOP members claim that increasingly sophisticated Chinese naval vessels equipped with ballistic missiles could launch against the East Coast. But many Democrats, like Levin, say it is not needed and would be too pricey.
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 Senate’s legislation contains no provisions that would alter the White House’s plans to remove most American combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Levin told reporters. Several amendments will be offered to the House bill, now on the floor, that could do just that, potentially setting up another conference issue.
Nor does the Senate bill address the status of the CIA and military armed drone program. Some in the House want to transfer the entire program to the military, but Levin said his panel never considered language to do that or to ensure the CIA retains some targeted-killing capability using remotely piloted planes.
The eventual House-Senate conference panel also will have to reconcile how to handle proposed funding for the Pentagon’s new Defense Clandestine Service, a cadre of military spies housed under the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The House bill “would prohibit the use of 50 percent of the funds” eventually authorized for the DCS until the secretary certifies to several congressional panels “that the Defense Clandestine Service is designed primarily to fulfill requirements of the Department of Defense that are unique to the Department of Defense or otherwise unmet; and provide unique capabilities to the intelligence community,” according to the lower chamber’s bill.
A senior SASC aide told Defense News that “there was some consideration” of including a similar provision, “but in the end, we didn’t do anything.”
It is not clear when the SASC bill will be brought to the Senate floor. Once the full upper chamber passes it, a conference committee will begin work on a final bill to send to the president.
Levin told reporters the committee intends to release a full summary of its NDAA on Friday.