WASHINGTON — House Democrats sided with the Biden administration Tuesday, offering a $762 billion fiscal 2023 defense spending bill in an initial draft released by the Appropriations Committee.
The initial legislation provides a $32 billion increase over the FY22 defense budget, but rejects calls from Republicans and some centrist Democrats to raise the FY23 budget by 3% to 5% above historic inflation rates.
Beyond the more than $40 billion in supplemental funding Congress has appropriated this year for Ukraine and its neighbors, House Democratic appropriators would meet the White House’s budget request for $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. The fund pays for training, equipment, lethal assistance, logistics support, salaries and intelligence support for Ukrainian forces.
“As Democrats continue to invest in diplomacy, development, and health, we also scrutinized this year’s budget for inefficiencies and for cuts that could be made to save taxpayer money,” Defense Appropriations Chairwoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said in a statement upon releasing the bill. “As Vladimir Putin continues his brutal, illegal war in Ukraine, this legislation continues to support the Ukrainian people in their fight to defend their democracy.”
Included in the $1.38 billion for other security cooperation programs is $25 million for Georgia; $18.75 million each for Poland and Romania, and $12.5 million for Bulgaria, according to a summary. In the Mideast, it proposes as much as $650 million for Jordan, a longstanding recipient of U.S. aid, to secure its borders with Syria and Iraq.
While increased security assistance for Ukraine and eastern Europe has enjoyed robust bipartisan support in Congress, the defense appropriations bill indicates Democratic leaders are resisting pressure from defense hawks on Capitol Hill and the defense industry to increase the Pentagon budget well above the inflation rate.
Democrats only hold a 12-seat majority in the House, meaning they can only afford a few defections when they hold floor votes on the defense appropriations and authorization bills later this year — assuming Republicans continue to reject the $762 billion topline.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., joined Republicans in urging Democratic leaders to increase the Pentagon budget by 3% to 5% over inflation when the House Armed Services subcommittees began marking up their sections of the annual defense authorization bill last week.
Lawmakers like Luria may attempt to increase the topline through the appropriations and authorization process.
The House defense appropriations subcommittee is set to mark up the initial legislation on Wednesday, and the full Appropriations Committee will vote on the defense funding bill next week. Additionally, the Senate Armed Services Committee is marking up its defense authorization bill this week and the House Armed Services Committee will conclude its markup process next week.
Navy and Marine Corps
The defense appropriations subcommittee also largely hewed to the Navy and Marine Corps’ request for new ships and aircraft. The proposal funds the eight new ships the Navy wanted, as well as all the manned and unmanned aircraft the two services requested — plus an additional two CH-53K heavy lift helicopters beyond the administration’s request.
A key point of departure, though, is the fate of nine Freedom-variant littoral combat ships. The Navy requested to decommission 24 total ships in FY23, including 16 ships well short of their planned service life. Nine of those were LCSs.
The defense appropriations legislation “[p]rohibits the decommissioning of five Littoral Combat Ships; directs a report on alternate uses of these vessels, such as missions in the [U.S. Southern Command] and [U.S. Africa Command] areas of responsibility; and permits the decommissioning of four ships, which would also allow the Navy and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency to explore the possibility of transferring them to partner nations.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday made clear in testimony to lawmakers this spring the Navy could certainly find missions for these LCS ships, though they’re not as heavily armed for high-end combat as larger ships like a destroyer. Still, he said, the Navy had limited funds for manning, operations, maintenance and other day-to-day costs, and so it ranked its ships by importance to a future high-end fight and made a cutoff based on its expected funding levels.
The summary and legislative language released by the subcommittee do not indicate whether operations and maintenance dollars were increased to support keeping these five LCSs. The Navy said decommissioning the 24 total ships would save the Navy $3.6 billion across the next five years, but it’s unclear how much of that amount is associated with the LCSs.
The House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chose not to weigh in on the LCS decommissioning issue because there wasn’t consensus among the subcommittee members. The full committee will take up the issue in its markup later this month. HASC seapower members did, however, vote to save four amphibious ships and one cruiser from early retirement, something not included in the defense appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations legislation would also cancel all research and development funds for the Navy’s Sea Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear program. The fate of the SLCM-N has split the Defense Department, putting Navy leadership at odds with operational commanders.
The Trump administration kicked off the research and development program, which would have put sea-launched tactical nuclear weapons on attack submarines or destroyers. The Biden administration ended the program in its FY23 request.
Gilday made clear it would be too great a burden to put nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on any kind of ship beyond the ballistic missile submarines whose sole mission is to hide under water with its lethal payload in case of a nuclear war. Gilday said putting nukes on attack submarines or surface ships would add a cost to their training and maintenance bill and would take high-demand ships away from their proper missions, which are already more numerous than the attack submarine and destroyer fleets can cover today.
Still, U.S. Strategic Command commander Adm. Chas Richard and U.S. European Command commander Gen. Tod Wolters want a low-yield nuclear option to deter Russia, which has a range of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons that could be employed under different situations. Generally, Democrats have favored cutting the program, whereas many Republicans favor pursuing it.
Gilday offered a middle ground, telling multiple committees on the Hill he’d favor a modest investment in SLCM-N technology to keep the industrial base going, in case there were to be a more convincing future case for the weapon.
The House defense appropriations legislation also fully funds the Air Force’s request for 15 new KC-46 Pegasus tankers and 10 HH-60W Jolly Green II combat rescue helicopters, at a price of $2.7 billion and $694 million respectively.
The budget would provide $7.2 billion for 61 new F-35 fighters, fully funding the administration’s request.
And it would provide the full $1.7 billion the Air Force sought for its Next Generation Air Dominance program.
But it would cut by one-quarter the number of F-15EX fighters the Air Force requested in 2023. The legislation offers $1.9 billion to buy 18 F-15EX fighters next year, down from the 24 the Air Force sought at a price tag of $2.7 billion.
The F-15EX replaces older C and D versions of the fighter. The average F-15C and D is 38 years old, and many are beyond their service life and facing serious problems with their structure, wires, and obsolete parts.
And it would provide $1.5 billion in procurement funds for the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, which would enter low-rate initial production next year.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.