A Senate panel's fiscal 2014 Pentagon spending bill added $100 million to the DDG-51 destroyer program in order 'to fund 10-ship multi-year contract commitments.' Here, destroyers are under construction at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. (General Dynamics Bath Iron Works)
WASHINGTON — A Senate subcommittee on Tuesday approved a spending measure that would give the Pentagon $594 billion in fiscal 2014, slap new spending restrictions on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and provide more money for two shipbuilding initiatives.
The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee unanimously approved a Pentagon spending bill that calls for a $516.4 billion base budget and a $77.8 billion war-funding section. The base section’s topline aligns with the Obama administration’s request, while the Overseas Contingency Operations portion would be $8 billion smaller than the White House’s request.
“This bill supports our troops, who defend our national interests around the world every day from Afghanistan to the Asia Pacific,” said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
But Durbin, like most other defense-minded lawmakers, had barely started his prepared statement before turning to sequestration, a budget mechanism slated to further slash planned Pentagon spending by another $450 billion over the next nine years.
“We are crafting this support in a highly uncertain and tumultuous budget environment,” Durbin said, citing civilian defense workers’ furloughs and pay cuts, as well as Air Force squadrons being grounded due to insufficient training funds.
“We cannot continue like this. Across-the-board sequestration cuts are forcing us to play ‘whack-a-mole’ with the defense budget,” Durbin said. “For every cut that is mitigated, somewhere there is another program that is taking a bigger hit.”
Other members, such as full Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., joined Durbin in — again — calling for the kind of “grand bargain” deficit-reduction bill that would lessen or void the pending twin defense and domestic sequestration cuts.
Mikulski noted because members of the House and Senate budget committees never conferenced their very different 2014 federal budget plans, since “we haven’t agreed on a topline ... it’s hard to get to the bottom line.”
On a grand bargain, Mikulski noted while she is “all for” a long-term deal that would address all nine remaining years of sequestration, a short-term deal might be a temporary answer.
Specifically, she called for what would amount to a “mini-grand bargain,” legislation that would replace or delay the across-the-board sequestration cuts planned for the next two years (fiscal 2014 and 2015).
“While I’m for a [long-term] bargain,” Mikulski said, “I’m also for a bargain real quick.”
She said many House members “assume sequester is the new normal,” adding: “I don’t do that.”
Maryland has a big military and defense industry presence.
“If sequestration continues in fiscal 2014, the impacts will be even greater, especially under a long-term continuing resolution,” states a subcommittee summary of the legislation. “This bill recommends increased funding in several areas to limit that risk and begin recovery in targeted areas.”
To that end, the panel proposes adding nearly $3 billion to readiness accounts to “restore shortfalls in ground training exercises, ship steaming days and aircraft flying hours,” according to the summary.
The Senate subcommittee also wants to swell the Navy’s requested funding amount for the Virginia-class submarine program by $227 million, as well as its request for the DDG-51 destroyer program by $100 million “to fund 10-ship multiyear contract commitments.”
The bill also contains an unspecified amount “to continue operation and begin modernization of nine Navy ships proposed for retirement due to general budget constraints,” states the summary.
The panel proposes $98.4 billion for procurement across the Defense Department, including fully funding the Pentagon’s desire to purchase nearly 30 F-35 fighters in 2014.
But Durbin made clear the legislation reflects lawmakers’ concerns about the health of what already is the most-expensive DoD acquisition in history.
“The bill fully funds the requested 29 joint strike fighter aircraft in fiscal year 2014. But it reduces advanced procurement for fiscal year 2015 out of concern that we must focus on the existing challenges in testing, design and development before ramping up,” Durbin said.
“Aggressive overlap in designing, testing and procuring this aircraft earlier in its history got us into serious trouble,” the chairman said, “and this committee is eager to avoid a repeat of these problems.”
The subcommittee also has problems with the Air Force’s plans to buy a new search-and-rescue helicopter.
“In the Air Force, our bill reduces funding for the Combat Rescue Helicopter because the department can meet its needs by being more innovative with a proven derivative of the Black Hawk helicopter program, which has more affordable unit costs,” Durbin said.
As the Pentagon looks to cut costs, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced plans — with or without the sequestration cuts — to slash senior officer and civilian positions within his office, the Joint Staff and the combatant commands by 20 percent by 2019.
Count Durbin’s panel as on board. In fact, its 2014 defense spending bill would help get Hagel’s planned cut started.
“The committee is … concerned about the growth in senior military leadership. According to a recent analysis, the US military is 30 percent smaller than it was at the end of the Cold War, but it has almost 20 percent more three- and four-star officers,” Durbin said. “Our bill reinforces [Hagel’s] recently announced cuts in this area by reducing pay and operations for these billets by $8 billion.”
The Senate subcommittee zeros in on “wasteful, unnecessary and duplicative” spending within the Pentagon’s budget, stripping $12.6 billion from some programs and directing those dollars instead to “higher priorities.”
On other big-ticket weapon systems, the Senate panel’s bill provides a rubber stamp for the armed services’ funding levels. That is true for the Army’s CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache helicopter programs; the Air Force’s C-130J Hercules program; and the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon and E-2D Hawkeye programs.
On future systems — such as the Air Force’s next-generation bomber and aerial tanker; the Navy’s MQ-4 Triton remotely piloted aircraft effort; and the Army-Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle programs — the panel also adopted the services’ proposed funding levels.
The panel waded into the contentious Pentagon-Congress fight over the military’s repeated moves to buy Russian-made helicopters for Afghanistan’s security forces.
Pentagon officials say Afghans know how to operate and repair only the Russian choppers, making another fleet a more expensive and complicated option. Congress says US taxpayer dollars should not line the pockets of Russian defense executives and government officials.
“Recently, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted that it would be … ‘imprudent’ to continue to provide Mi-17 helicopters from … Rosoboronexport because Afghan security forces lack the personnel and expertise to operate the current fleet,” Durbin said. “This committee agrees, and as a result provides no funds for these in fiscal year 2014 and carries a prohibition on funding them unless the secretary of defense provides Congress a national security waiver.”