The fiscal 2014 defense appropriations budget includes money to purchase 20 General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers, eight more drones than the Pentagon requested. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon welcomed passage of a 2014 defense appropriations bill four months into the fiscal year, the earliest the Defense Department has received an appropriation in a number of years.
The bill — part of a trillion-dollar federal spending measure, which President Barack Obama was expected to sign by Jan. 18 — aligns more than $99 billion for procurement in the base and war sections of the budget.
“The bipartisan appropriations bill provides our department with necessary funding for critical investments and modernization, an increase in pay and benefits for our 3 million service members and civilians, continued training, equipment maintenance and funding that supports military operations in Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Jan. 16.
“The additional funds in the omnibus bill above sequestration levels will certainly help us ensure that our troops can do what they joined the force to do,” he said. “It doesn’t solve every problem, but it does give us a measure of stability.”
The Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter program received $333.5 million, $60 million under the request. While members of Congress have identified the program as a priority, Air Force officials are still looking for a way to continue funding the program in 2015 and 2016, according to sources. The program had fallen below the cut line at times as the service built numerous 2015 budget plans contingent on a range of spending levels.
If the program receives funding in the 2015 budget plan, the Air Force could award the Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin team — the only bidder for the project — as soon as late March. But throughout the budget process, Air Force officials have indicated that starting any new programs would be difficult.
The bill contains $10 million to study whether sensors from the venerable U-2 spy plane could be adapted for the unmanned Global Hawk Block 30. The Air Force has said it wants to move away from the Global Hawk, but contractor Northrop Grumman and its Hill supporters have fought back. Lawmakers want to know whether the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System camera can work on the Global Hawk; if so, it is a win for Northrop.
Meanwhile, the omnibus bill directs the Air Force to purchase 20 unmanned General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper aircraft with $349 million in funding. That is eight more UAVs than were requested.
The direction comes as top Air Force officials have indicated they could be moving away from the desire to have 65 combat air patrols. Another $40 million is included to procure equipment necessary to transition six Air National Guard squadrons into split operations of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper units by 2020.
Also in the bill is a $47 million package for the continuation of the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program, supporting the procurement of kits if the program goes into production. The Pentagon has tried in the past to cut the program due to its high cost.
The KC-46A tanker replacement program — which the Air Force has identified as a top priority — will receive $1.6 billion in the omnibus bill. The service has said the program is moving along on schedule, and first flight of the new aerial refueling plane is scheduled to occur in early 2015. Boeing announced last week that it had begun assembling the fourth KC-46 test aircraft.
Another modernization priority, the new long-range strike bomber, will receive $359 million, although it is likely there is more money for that program in the Air Force’s classified budget.
The service’s third major modernization program, the F-35A joint strike fighter, lost advance procurement funds for two jets that would be purchased in fiscal 2015. The Navy also lost one F-35C variant. Congress also earmarked $6 million to begin studying what could be included in the plane’s Block 4 software, which likely won’t be seen until the end of the decade.
Lawmakers boosted the Navy’s shipbuilding budget by $1 billion but cut Navy aircraft procurement by $1.5 billion, Jim McAleese, a defense contracting and budget expert who runs McAleese and Associates, said in a note to clients. The bill cuts $100 million in research-and-development funding for the Navy’s Next Generation Jammer program.
The bill guts funding for the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program from $452 million to $100 million. Lawmakers added $75 million for UH-72 Lakota and $72 million for Black Hawk helicopters. They also added $45 million in Stryker and Abrams procurement. ■
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.