WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee members unveiled a $750 billion budget plan for fiscal 2020, including $3.6 billion to replace construction money taken from border wall projects and what lawmakers called a “realistic” plan for a significant plus-up of military spending next year.
The draft of the annual defense authorization bill includes a 3.1 percent pay raise — the biggest in a decade —and would go beyond the administration’s plans with some equipment purchases.
It largely tracks with funding requests from the White House, but shifts more than $97 billion in overseas contingency operations funding to the base budget, a move that means Congress will have to reach a deal on defense spending caps for the measure to become law. (The House spending bill also rejects the maneuver.)
President Donald Trump had hoped to hide that money in the overseas war accounts to avoid triggering the budget caps — and to keep limits on nondefense spending — but committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., criticized that plan as an unrealistic budget gimmick.
That’s not the only obstacle facing the plan. Congress has passed the defense authorization legislation every year for more than five decades, but it will face a difficult road this summer as the White House and congressional Democrats spar over the use of military funding for Trump’s southern border wall project.
The Senate Armed Services Committee plan includes $3.6 billion in extra construction funding to replace money tapped by Trump through emergency powers, but not an additional $3.6 billion in new money for future building. House appropriators have already rejected both requests in their fiscal 2020 budget plans.
The House’s appropriations proposal for next year’s bill also includes about $17 billion less in overall spending for the Defense Department, a significant gap that both chambers will have to reconcile in the months ahead.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., also indicated he’ll target the $733 billion level when his panel marks up its draft of the defense authorization bill next month.
In a statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., called the $750 billion figure the “bare minimum” needed for the military to respond to evolving security threats and maintain current operations around the world.
More troops, more limits
Senate lawmakers agreed with White House plans to add about 6,200 service members to the active-duty force next year. Of that, about 2,500 would be added to the Navy, 2,000 to the Army, 1,700 to the Air Force and 100 to the Marine Corps.
But the Senate committee’s bill makes a statement about America’s commitment to its allies by placing limits on what the president can do with personnel. On NATO, the bill would block funds for one year for any withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe, if the U.S. were to initiate it.
On South Korea, it would block any reduction of U.S. forces there below 28,500, citing the threat from North Korea’s conventional forces and weapons of mass destruction. Trump has suggested he would be open to reducing some of those forces in his negotiations with North Korean leaders.
The 3.1 percent pay raise matches the target set by the White House and House Appropriations Committee, signaling bipartisan support for the idea. It matches the federal formula for increasing military pay to keep pace with civilian sector wages.
For junior enlisted troops, a 3.1 percent pay raise would see about $815 more a year in pay. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $1,500 more. An O-4 with 12 years service would see more than $2,800 extra next year under the increase.
The measure also includes a host of new military housing provisions in response to reports of substandard living conditions at bases around the country. And it includes several reforms to sexual assault and abuse in the ranks, including plans to make sexual harassment a stand-alone crime under military law.
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who has written several sexual assault provisions, said the moves also include more legal protections for victims and more research on prevention of sexual assault.
More planes and nukes
For procurement and modernization, the SASC bill would fully fund the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization programs, including the triad of delivery systems, as well as the Energy Department’s warhead life-extension programs and infrastructure recapitalization.
That may invite a fight with Smith, who has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the size and scope of America’s nuclear arsenal and Pentagon spending overall. What his panel will do when it marks up its version of the bill next month remains to be seen.
The bill authorizes $10 billion for 94 fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, adding 16 to the administration’s request, while buying eight fourth-generation F-15X aircraft for $948 million, which shorts the administration’s F-15X request by $162 million. It also authorizes $2.8 billion for 15 KC-46A aircraft, or three more.
“We still want the same number of F-35s in the end, but we need to do something in the interim,” a senior committee aide said of the F-15X.
The bill offers another legislative restriction for transferring funds in regard to the F-35 or related equipment and intellectual property to Turkey unless the U.S. secretaries of defense and state certify that Turkey has not accepted delivery of the S-400 air and missile defense system from Russia and has provided reliable assurances it will never do so.
Per the bill, the Navy must carry out the nuclear refueling and overhaul of the aircraft carriers John C. Stennis and Harry S. Truman. That would lock in the administration’s cancellation of plans to decommission the Truman 25 years early as a cost-savings measure.
Twelve new ships are included for $24.1 billion. Submarine spending includes $4.7 billion for Virginia Payload Modules in two Virginia-class subs and advanced funding for an additional Virginia-class submarine.
For the Army, it surpasses the administration’s request with 48 AH-64E Apaches and 33 UH-60V Black Hawk conversions, but it provides for seven fewer UH-60M Black Hawks. It buys 65 Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicles, 53 Paladin Integrated Management sets and spends $393.6 million on the Stryker, adding to the administration’s request for the 30mm cannon upgrade.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.