WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee early Thursday voted to add billions to a list of Defense Department weapon programs from cuts, and signed off on a $495.9 billion base Pentagon budget and an $89.2 billion war account.
In a bipartisan 60-2 vote, the committee approved its version of the national defense authorization act (NDAA), which proposes keeping alive the Air Force's A-10 attack plane fleet and endorses extra funding for additional fighter jets for the Navy and Marine Corps.
The marathon session ended just after 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, and featured little — and in some cases no — debate about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan or a Republican-crafted overseas contingency operations (OCO) account opposed by many Democrats and the White House because it inflates defense spending without doing the same for domestic programs.
HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the legislation "matches the president's request and the level [Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin] Dempsey said was the 'lower-ragged edge' of what is necessary."
"The bill advances the vital funding and authorities America's military requires," Thornberry said. "At a time of unprecedented threats, uncertainty, and technological change, the NDAA strives to ensure that our forces are agile, efficient, ready, and lethal."
Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the bill "contains some good provisions," adding "the world remains a dangerous place and, historically, this bill has provided a vehicle for congress to put its imprint on national security policy."
The panel handed the Defense Department and industry a list of victories on weapon program funding and its blessing to buy more of some big-ticket items than the services had included in their respective budget requests — despite spending caps.
Responding to the Navy's and Marine Corps' shared list of "unfunded priorities" submitted earlier this year to lawmakers, the House committee approved language that would clear the services to purchase more fighter aircraft than requested.
"As the demand increases, it is vital that Congress address the shortfall in strike aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps — including the replacement of Harrier aircraft lost in Afghanistan," states a committee fact sheet accompanying the legislation.
The legislation, which must still pass the full House and be negotiated with Senate Armed Services Committee members, would the Navy to buy a dozen more F/A-18 Super Hornets, while also clearing the Marine Corps to purchase six F-35Bs above its request of nine.
The panel signed off on an additional $1.15 billion for the extra 12 Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornets and an additional $1 billion for the six extra Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35Bs.
And the panel joined Thornberry in several actions that placed it in full support of the often-embattled F-35 program, which has been plagued by developmental and testing problems.
"The chairman also supports the budget request for 57 total F-35 aircraft, but recommends targeted adjustments based on contract savings and program oversight concerns," states the fact sheet.
During the marathon markup, the committee shot down an amendment offered by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that would have cut the Air Force's 2016 F-35A buy from 44 to 38.
She argued developmental issues, reliability woes and software problems justified cutting the program's authorized funding line by $588.5 million, and shifting those monies to a National Guard and reserve equipment fund.
Several members, including HASC's Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, pushed back, arguing the F-35 program has the country's lone hot fifth-generation production line and is too central to the future military plans of the United States and some of its closest allies.
The committee also signed off on a provision that would clear the Army National Guard to spend funds above its request for Sikorsky-made UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters. The summary states the Guard would get $136.8 million for new helos.
One politically charged item that could be a boost to US missile firms -- but is opposed by Senate Democrats — is the House bill's authorization for the Pentagon to spend $30 million on an East Coast missile defense site.
The committee also continued its strong support for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program to develop an aircraft "capable of deep penetrating strike in contested environments," states a committee document. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are seeking the UCLASS contract.
There were other procurement wins for DoD and industry.
HASC approved language that would be a boon for the US rocket propulsion industry. That provision would push Air Force officials to "move faster than it is planning to end reliance on Russian rocket engines."
To that end, the committee's bill contains a provision altering Air Force space launch contracting. And the panel is proposing $184.4 million not requested for a new US rocket.
HASC members also handed wins to US missile defense, shipbuilding firms, and the Navy by approving cuts from other areas of the defense budget to add funds for other programs. That list including: $329.8 million for joint US-Israeli missile defense programs; $120 million for Navy destroyer modifications; and $279 million for the sea services LX(R) amphibious ship program.
While US defense companies came out the big winners in the panel's bill, the committee did buck the services on some issues.
For instance, during the markup, the panel killed an amendment offered by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Ct., that would have stripped Seapower subcommittee-crafted language on cruisers opposed by the Navy.
The subpanel's section of the bill "prohibits removing the missile defense capabilities of the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, as well as prohibiting their retirement, inactivation, or storage," according to the subcommittee's press release. Lawmakers also limited the term of cruiser overhauls to two years "to prevent unnecessary layup of these critical assets at a time of growing demand for missile defense capabilities."
In a statement, HASC's Democrats said Republicans disavowed pleas from the Chief of Naval Operations and moved forward with a plan that will undermine the Navy, place undue hardship on sailors and their families and reduce competition within the shipbuilding industrial base."
The Democrats' statement cited a recent letter from the CNO that stated the legislation's language "would create affordability and executability challenges as well as added strain on the shipbuilding industrial base, Sailors and their families."
The Democratic members said Courtney's amendment "would have mitigated the concerns articulated by the Chief of Naval Operations and required the Navy to continue executing the modernization plan created by Congress last year."
Additionally, the committee adopted an amendment from Reps. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., and Gwen Graham, D-Fla., that would clear the US and Israel to develop an "anti-tunneling system." The idea is to bolster Israel's ability to thwart future terrorist attacks like those from Gaza in 2014. The Lamborn-Graham measure would clear the two countries to begin R&D on an anti-tunneling system.
For the second consecutive year, the panel rejected an Air Force plan to retire its aging A-10 attack planes.
The Air Force argues the decades-old A-10s are too expensive to keep flying. 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.
"Rigorous oversight, endorsements from soldiers and Marines about the protection only the A-10 can provide, and repeated deployments in support of [Operation Inherent Resolve] have persuaded Chairman Thornberry and many members from both parties that the budget-driven decision to retire the A-10 is misguided," according to the HASC fact sheet.
The committee notes this about Thornberry's proposal: "Unlike past efforts to restore the platform, the chairman identifies specific funding to restore personnel, and preserve, modify, and upgrade the A-10 fleet.
"With funding secured, the chairman would welcome efforts at markup to prohibit the retirement of the A-10 fleet," states the fact sheet, signaling the contents of one of the tens of amendments the full committee will take up Wednesday.
On a table in the fact sheet showing "resources added" to the Obama administration's 2016 Pentagon spending request is a funding line of the A-10 program of $682.7 million.
During the 18-hour markup, the panel adopted via a voice vote an amendment offered by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former A-10 pilot that would prohibit the retirement of any Thunderbolts in 2016. It defeated an alternate amendment in a vote that broke down mostly along party lines that would have allowed the service to retire many Thunderbolts, but keep around 100 A-10s operational.
"Unlike years past, my amendment will fully protect the Warthog next year," she said in a statement. "Not only does it prohibit the retirement of any A-10s, it prevents any additional back door attempts at mothballing these aircraft, such as placing them in backup status."
In a twist, as the markup stretched into Wednesday evening, the Air Force rescinded a recent memo that warned keeping the Thunderbolt fleet would cause a delay in the initial operational capability (IOC) milestone of the F-35 fighter, sister publication Air Force Times reported. Air Force officials became concerned about wording in the memo that tied that F-35 milestone to the A-10.
There also were funding reductions that had been worked out with the services ahead of the Wednesday markup.
As Defense News reported Friday evening, the HASC bill proposes removing $460 million from the research and development of the Air Force's next-generation bomber — but that may not be bad news for the service.
A source said that cut likely was made in coordination with the bomber program office.
The HASC fact sheet has this to say on the sizable reduction: "The new bomber program is a key element in DoD's planned investment in long-range strike. The proposal authorizes the full amount for the program that the Air Force can execute in FY16, given contract award delays." The panel would cut the bomber request by $460 million.
The panel also would make cuts to the Air Force's KC-46A aerial tanker program to a level it dubs "the level the Air Force can execute in FY16." Its proposed tanker funding reduction is $224 million.
— Brian Everstine, Christopher P. Cavas and Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed.