An EA-18G Growler launches from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. A Senate subcommittee added $1.3 billion for a dozen of the aircraft. (MC2 John Philip Wagner/ / Navy)
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WASHINGTON — A US Senate panel on Tuesday approved nearly $550 billion in military spending as part of a bill that would keep alive weapon systems the Pentagon wanted to retire.
The chamber’s Appropriations Defense subcommittee unanimously approved legislation that would give the Pentagon $489.6 billion in base spending and $58.3 billion in war funding. It would block a long list of weapon system retirement proposals or Pentagon plans to not purchase systems next year to save money.
In short, the proposed $547.9 billion total figure is yet another victory for the US defense sector, which has long warned it will see a financial hit due to sequestration.
Notably, the legislation, which will be marked up by the full committee on Thursday, would provide millions not requested by the White House to refuel the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.
The other three defense committees did the same, meaning America almost certainly will maintain 11 carrier battle groups.
The bill would block the Air Force’s plans to retire the A-10 attack plane fleet by shifting $338 million from lower-priority items.
The subcommittee was able to keep alive the George Washington and A-10 while still adding funds for other programs by proposing “517 specific cuts to programs” and redirecting “some of the approximately $11.7 billion in savings to higher priorities,” according to a subcommittee summary document.
The House Appropriations Committee largely used the same strategy of shifting funds to higher-profile programs in proposing to block planned Pentagonweapon retirements.
One of those higher priorities was the Navy’s E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare fleet.
The Senate subcommittee added $1.3 billion for a dozen of the Boeing-made planes, more than in the other three 2015 defense bills. Boeing is based in SAC-D Democratic Chairman Richard Durbin’s home state of Illinois.
“I’ve seen it,” he said when asked why he added so much for the jets. A House-Senate conference committee will have to decide how many Growlers the Navy could buy next year when it hammers out a compromise 2015 defense spending bill.
Army vehicles also received additional funding. The SAC-D’s legislation moves to “[stabilize] the ground vehicle industrial base by adding $75 billion for the Improved Recovery Vehicle, $37 million for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, $120 million for the Abrams tank, and $61 million for the Stryker vehicle production and development,” states the summary.
Other priorities that got plussed-up included AWACS aircraft, for which the panel would provide $31 million next year to keep all 31 of the planes flying.
SAC-D also proposed fully funding the troubled F-35 fighter program and buying all 34 of the Lockheed Martin-made fighters requested by the White House. There was no mention during the subcommittee mark up of a recent engine fire that led defense officials to ground the entire F-35 fleet.
Durbin quoted senior Pentagon officials’ warnings about cuts to US military research and development spending.
“God forbid if that’s the verdict,” Durbin said, saying the US should spend 5 percent of its total defense spending on R&D to keep pace with China. The bill adds millions to achieve Durbin’s goal.
Durbin said the bill contains $1.9 billion for the new counterterrorism partnership fund sought by President Barack Obama. Obama requested $5 billion.
The proposed new CT funding would help the United States work with partners in combating the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The SAC-D bill also would double funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program, which has been credited in recent days with intercepting missiles fired by Hamas. The bill would provide $351 million for Iron Dome in 2015 and $621.6 million for missile defense work with Israel overall.
The subcommittee’s bill would provide billions for Navy shipbuilding programs. Durbin warned against cutting shipbuilding programs because that sector’s workers would find employment elsewhere.
“We want to make sure we do what we can to protect this industrial base” by ensuring workers remain at shipbuilding firms to do work to “protect the country,” Durbin said.
Panel member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the legislation “fully funds” the DDG-1000 and DDG-51 destroyer programs.
It would partially fund LPD-28 transport ships in 2015. And the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program would get $80 million “for long-lead parts to purchase the final ship of the block buy next year, at this year’s pricing,” according to the summary.
It would provide $125 million not requested by the Obama administration to allow for “real competition” on military satellite launches, Durbin said, adding the move was a direct result of Space-X officials’ testimony before the panel.
The legislation also would provide funds to develop a new liquid-fuel engine, which Durbin said would eventually ease the US military’s “dependence” on a Russian launch firm.
Whether or not the bill ever reaches the Senate floor is very murky. The chamber remains locked in a bitter partisan fight over process and amendments.
Last week, sources told CongressWatch the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees have yet to begin discussing what’s known as “pre-conferencing.”
That is Capitol Hill jargon for the practice — used before on recent defense bills — of a conference committee meeting in secret to write a compromise version of a bill that can quickly pass both chambers, typically with no amendments.
Hill sources have said for months a “pre-conferenced” defense bill is highly possible this year. ■