WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee early Thursday voted to add billions to a list of Defense Department weapons programs and signed off on a $583 billion Pentagon budget that blurs the lines between wartime funding and base-budget requirements.
In a bipartisan 60-2 vote, the committee approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which uses the war account to skirt statutory budget caps — and salvage items cut from the Obama administration’s budget and placed on the services’ “unfunded priorities” lists. That includes 27,000 more active-duty troops and 25,000 reservists; $3 billion for 14 more F/A-18E/F aircraft for the Navy and 11 more F-35 joint strike fighters across the services; and a $2 billion plus-up to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.
"Each of these investments was identified as a critical requirement by the military services; none of them were fully funded in the President’s Budget Request,” according to a committee fact sheet accompanying the legislation.
The marathon session ended just after 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, and it featured early debate over the Republican-crafted plan to match the national security top-line in the 2015 budget deal and President Barack Obama’s budget request, but shift an additional $18 billion for the base budget from the overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund.
The NDAA would authorize roughly $524 billion for the base budget and $58.8 billion for the OCO account. However, to the $5 billion the Bipartisan Budget Act allocated for base-budget requirements, the NDAA's reallocation of $18 billion leaves wartime OCO with $36 billion.
The $36 billion in OCO would only be authorized until April 30, 2017, a gambit to force the next president to request supplemental funding from Congress.
HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the priority for the 2017 NDAA was to ensure troops were adequately equipped and ready, which “means that there is not enough money to fund the OCO activities proposed by the president for the full year; there will be enough for roughly six months.”
“But there will be a new president, who undoubtedly will review the operational activities proposed by President Obama as well as the funding levels for them,” Thornberry said. “And the new president and the new Congress will have the opportunity to make adjustments.”
Ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., lauded the bill and said he would vote for it, but lamented the rearranging of OCO as “a very high-stakes game.” He was one of three key Democrats on the committee to question the funding plan.
“This bill is based on a lot of hope in what will happen next April or May,” Smith said. “While this is a good bill, it spends more than we have, and this is a problem we will have to wrestle with in this markup, on the floor and once we get to conference.”
To make a point about finding cost savings, Smith offered and withdrew an amendment to authorize base closures, bucking a ban on the Base Realignment and Closure process contained in the bill.
Debate over military operations against the Islamic State group peaked as Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., offered an updated, three-year authorization on the use of military force (AUMF), to replace the 2002 AUMF being used to conduct operations in Iraq and Syria — a “stretch of legal imagination,” he said. Garamendi withdrew the measure for procedural reasons and indicated he would reintroduce it on the House floor.
The panel passed a separate measure to require that the Pentagon detail criteria for the Islamic State group to be considered defeated and to define the conditions necessary to prevent a terrorist successor to ISIS from taking root in the Middle East.
“It’s critically important that we define what victory looks like, how to achieve it and ensure we aren’t back there again,” said the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas.
The bill also cut the president’s budget request for the Syria Train and Equip program by roughly $98 million to $151 million. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, introduced a failed amendment to end the program entirely and was later one of the two votes against the entire NDAA.
By and large, the panel handed the Defense Department and industry a list of victories on weapon program funding and its blessing to buy more big-ticket items than the president’s budget request would have.
The legislation added $1.4 billion for 14 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet aircraft for the Navy, and $1.5 billion to allow for the purchase for 11 extra Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35s.
That is five additional F-35As for the Air Force, two F-35Bs for the Marine Corps and four F-35Cs for the Navy. The Air Force in its wish list had requested $691 million for the five jets, bringing the total it would buy in fiscal 2017 back up to the 48 it originally planned.
For the third consecutive year, the panel rejected an Air Force plan to retire its aging A-10 attack planes, due to begin in fiscal 2018, pending the results of tests for the F-35. The Air Force argues the decades-old A-10s are too expensive to keep flying, but lawmakers reject those arguments, saying the A-10s — which bring jobs to their states and districts — save US lives on the battlefield and must be kept operational.
The bill would require the Air Force to maintain a minimum of 171 A-10 aircraft and bar significant cuts to manning levels related to any A-10 units until the director of operational test and evaluation reports to Congress on the results of the initial operational test and evaluation of the F-35, as well as a comparison test and evaluation that examines the capabilities of the F-35A and A-10C.
The bill would also require a study of the budgetary implications of restarting Lockheed Martin’s F-22 fighter jet line.
For the Army, the panel plussed up helicopter buys and provided the authority to purchase Boeing-made AH-64E Apache helicopters and Sikorsky-made UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters using multiyear contract authority, which together will save close to $1 billion over five years, according to a fact sheet on the bill.
The panel added $440 million more for additional UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, $162 million more for AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, $150 million more for two V-22 Ospreys and $95 million more for one Northrop Grumman-made MQ-4C Triton.
A measure introduced by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., that would have separated the Block 4 modernization component of the joint strike fighter into a separate major defense acquisition program was defeated. She said the measure did not cut or fence funds, but was aimed at “rigorous oversight.”
Under the jurisdiction of the Seapower Subcommittee, there were more wins for industry.
The panel approved shipbuilding increases totaling $20.6 billion, $2.3 billion more than the president’s budget, and subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., called “the highest level of shipbuilding funding since the Reagan-Lehman era, adjusting for inflation.”
The sea power markup added two new ships — a littoral combat ship (LCS) and an amphibious ship — and completes full funding of a partially funded destroyer from last year, an addition the subcommittee is counting as a full ship. The bill seeks to prevent reductions in the cruiser, amphibious ship and mine warfare forces, and rules out the Navy’s proposal to eliminate a carrier wing.
The bill authorizes funding for three destroyers, one above the president’s budget. A Republican fact sheet said the ship “will come into service at a critical time for the Navy as missions continue to become more demanding and US presence is required in more corners of the globe."
The panel also adds $79 million to preserve a tenth carrier air wing, which was due to be cut in the president’s budget, and it authorizes $90 million for cruiser-phased modernization, rejecting the president’s plan to lay up more cruisers.
Bucking language in the bill that would effectively prohibit the Navy from down-selecting to one of the shipyards working on the LCS, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., offered and withdrew an amendment that would have limited LCS production to one variant and enacted a cap at 40 ships. Speier argued the LCS is less capable and more expensive than planned.
One of the most hotly contested issues for the panel was left for late in the hearing, as lawmakers worked behind the scenes throughout the day to reach an accord on the number of Russian rocket engines the Air Force can buy. A measure to raise the cap from nine to 18 as the Air Force seeks to end its reliance and find American suppliers passed by a voice vote.
Proponents said they reluctantly need to use the Russian-built RD-180 for US space launches while the US industrial base ramps up to offer competing engines — a path advocated by the Pentagon.
The Air Force contracts for launch services with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that uses the RD-180 to power its Atlas V launch vehicles. SpaceX is ULA's main competition for Pentagon business, as the company's Falcon 9 rocket won certification last year to compete for military space launches, but not for the heavy launches the Pentagon needs, lawmakers said.
“I just think we want to get off the RD-180, but we want to get off it in a reasonable responsible way,” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said.
Opponents variously expressed distaste for funding Russia’s military modernization or questioned whether the US could get by with fewer than 18 engines. Despite high costs quoted by Pentagon officials, some opponents felt a US alternative engine was ready.
“There’s no reason for us to line [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s pockets and stockpile these when we can get away with nine maybe, nine or ten,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said. “When you vote 'yes,' you are literally contributing to Russian military modernization.”
Ultimately, lawmakers also approved language in the bill that plows money out of an RD-180 replacement fund and creates a $100 million fund for research and development into a new launch system.
The bill addressed larger organizational issues at the Pentagon, including language to scrap its main public policy document, the beleaguered Quadrennial Defense Review, and replace it with two major strategy documents from Pentagon leadership.
These are among the far-reaching proposals Congress is pursuing in its 2017 defense policy bills under the umbrella of Goldwater-Nichols reform — a moniker that invokes the 30-year-old law that delineated roles and responsibilities across the Defense Department and established the geographic combatant commands. The discussions in Congress have been aimed at revamping the Pentagon to be more agile and innovative in the face of today’s complex threats.
The defense secretary would create Defense Strategic Guidance to direct the size and shape the force, the development and sustainment of capabilities, and how the Pentagon should respond to shifting global threats. Separately, it would create guidance for force development and contingency plans.
Aimed at reaching a bipartisan consensus on national security, the bill also calls for a "Commission on National Defense Strategy for the United States” to examine and make recommendations to the president, secretary of defense and relevant congressional committees.
Echoing recommendations from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, the bill would reinforce the role to provide independent military advice to the president and defense secretary. The chairman would also be vested with advisory responsibility over operations and the transfer of forces among combatant commands.
It would also extend the Joint Chiefs chairman’s term of office from two years to four and stagger the term outside of the four-year presidential election cycle.
The bill also aims to cap the rank of combatant command chiefs at three stars or below and cap the number of four-star officers to five. Both moves are meant to answer lawmakers’ concern that the chain of command has grown top-heavy.
Among other acquisition reform measures, the plan, amid pushback from the Pentagon and defense industry, eased proposed acquisition reforms that mandated modular open-architecture standards.