WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee handed the Pentagon and US defense sector a victory by surgically protecting weapon programs and authorizing extra war funding — but a showdown with the White House looms.
The committee, in the early hours of April 30, voted to add billions to a list of weapon programs, and signed off on a $495.9 billion base Pentagon budget and an $89.2 billion overseas contingency operations (OCO) account.
Its version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) throws a lifeline to the Air Force's A-10 attack planes, endorses extra funding for more Navy and Marine Corps fighter jets, and proposes buying more Army National Guard helicopters.
The influential panel made clear it strongly supports the often-troubled F-35 joint strike fighter program. It also threw its weight behind the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, while adding funds for US-Israeli missile defense work.
Analysts said it's not surprising that in an era of capped defense spending the committee would funnel more dollars to the programs it covets.
"As far as authorization bills go, it's a win for industry," said Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting for the Clinton administration. "Industry likes to add up authorization chips so they can say to the appropriators, 'Look what they promised us.'
"And I think the defense appropriators will be pretty receptive," Adams said. "It's not everything industry wanted, but it does include much of it."
The Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson, who advises defense firms, said, "it isn't surprising that defense committees want to protect key weapons programs, because military modernization has lagged during the Obama years.
"Two-thirds of defense savings under the Budget Control Act are coming from the investment accounts," Thompson said, adding the Army has canceled most of its next-generation programs and the Air Force claims it cannot afford a new trainer aircraft fleet or new early warning radar planes.
"So of course Congress is reluctant to retire what the military already has," Thompson said, "because who knows when next-generation systems will be fielded?
The list of programs the panel protected is substantial.
The panel would plus up Navy and Marine fighter fleets. It authorized $1.15 billion more for 12 Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornets above the request, and an additional $1 billion for six more Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35B jump jets than requested.
The legislation "supports the budget request for 57 total F-35 aircraft, but recommends targeted adjustments based on contract savings and program oversight concerns," states a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) fact sheet.
HASC killed an amendment offered by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that would have cut the Air Force's F-35A buy from 44 to 38.
Members signed off on a provision that would clear the Army National Guard to spend funds above its request for more Sikorsky-made UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters. The summary states the Guard would get $136.8 million for new helos.
In a possible boost for US missile firms, the panel authorizes $30 million for an East Coast missile defense site.
DoD and industry scored other procurement wins, such as a rocket sector-boosting provision that would push Air Force officials to "move faster than it is planning to end reliance on Russian rocket engines." The bill proposes $184.4 million not requested for a new US rocket.
HASC members handed wins to US missile defense, shipbuilding firms and the Navy by approving cuts from some areas of the defense budget to add funds for other programs, including: $329.8 million for US-Israeli missile defense programs; $120 million for Navy destroyer modifications; and $279 million for its LX(R) amphibious ship program.
While there's plenty for the services and arms manufacturers to like in the legislation, Adams said things could get even better.
"If they really do get a bigger OCO and a deal to raise the caps, they'll get even more," Adams said. "And appropriators can always find more money."
He was referring to the inflated war account that Republican leaders swelled from the Obama administration's $50.9 billion request to appease congressional defense hawks and a potential "Ryan-Murray II" deal.
There is talk on the Hill about a fiscal package that could move this fall and mirror the 2012 budget resolution crafted by then-House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and then-Senate Budget Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Like the original bill, a new one could provide some relief from the defense and domestic spending caps.
The White House wants such a deal and opposes the inflated war funding because the GOP-run Congress has no plans to increase domestic spending. Last week, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said GOP leaders could avoid vetoes of their appropriations bills by pursuing a "Ryan-Murray" sequel.
"Both parties have every incentive to compromise because both want to put this behind them and get out of Dodge," Adams said. "I don't think people want to have a big fight over the budget. Republicans would get to say, 'We increased defense spending.' Democrats would get to say, 'We increased domestic spending.' "
Lawmakers appear willing to talk about that kind of deal, but it's doubtful legislation would move until at least September.
"The HASC bill is just the midway entertainment before the main circus starts," Adams quipped. "Enjoy it. It's fun. Buy some popcorn. But we aren't going to get to the end game until this fall." ■