U.S. House Passes $625.1 Billion Defense Policy Measure

The House passed a $625.1 billion defense authorization bill for the current fiscal year that would revamp how the U.S. military handles sexual-assault cases while approving the Pentagon’s request for F-35 fighters and combat ships.

Congressional negotiators resorted to a compromise measure after gridlock in the Senate last month threatened to derail the legislation. A defense policy bill has been enacted for 51 consecutive years, a record lawmakers cite as a sign of bipartisan support for the military.

In an effort to ensure this year’s measure becomes law, the House is using a parliamentary move that will shorten the time that must elapse before a Senate vote next week. The House passed the bill 350-69, and the Senate is expected to consider it before adjourning for the year.

“This legislation pays our troops and their families,” Representative Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said on the House floor today. “It keeps our Navy fleet sailing and military aircraft flying.”

Achieving the compromise “was no small hill to climb,” McKeon said.

The measure sets military policy and spending targets for fiscal 2014, which started Oct. 1. Without it, troops can’t get pay raises, combat pay will lapse and the Pentagon can’t start new weapons programs or construction projects.

The compromise agreement authorizes $526.8 billion in discretionary spending for the Pentagon and $80.7 billion for overseas operations led by the war in Afghanistan. The measure also covers nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy, authorizing $17.6 billion.

F-35s, Tanks

The defense authorization would let the Pentagon buy the 29 F-35 jets it requested. The fighter, made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., is the military’s costliest weapons program at a projected price of $391.2 billion for a fleet of 2,443 aircraft.

The bill also would authorize $90 million to continue upgrades of the M1A2 tank that General Dynamics Corp. performs in Ohio, a program the Pentagon wanted to suspend.

It allows allows for the $1.8 billion acquisition of four additional Littoral Combat Ships in two versions, one made by a group led by Lockheed and the other by Henderson, Australia-based Austal Ltd.

The bill would increase the cost ceiling for the aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, being built by Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls, to $12.9 billion, making it the most expensive U.S. warship.

The measure would require quarterly reports from the Navy on its cost estimate for the next next carrier in the new class, the USS John F. Kennedy.

Global Hawks

Each prime contract for the Kennedy would be required to have a fee structure providing incentives to meet cost requirements. The agreement would require the Navy to freeze payments if total estimates exceed the cost cap.

The measure would authorize $1.3 billion for multiyear procurement contracts for Northrop Grumman Corp.’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye surveillance plane. It also would prohibit the Pentagon’s plan to retire Northrop’s Global Hawk Block 30 drone in 2014. Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop does final assembly of the drones in McKeon’s California district.

Sexual Assaults

In the effort to move more forcefully against sexual assaults in the military, the authorization measure would strip commanders of authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial and would be barred from reducing guilty findings in cases. Retaliation against personnel reporting sexual assaults would become a military crime under the measure.

“These are extremely important provisions” aimed at ending the “excessive numbers of sexual assaults that still occur,” Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters.

Pressure has been growing in Congress to change the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assaults after a Pentagon survey suggested a surge in such crimes. President Barack Obama has said the issue of sexual assault is undermining trust and readiness among members of the armed forces.

The measure doesn’t include an effort led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, to remove sexual-assault cases from the military chain of command. Gillibrand has said she will push for a vote on her proposal as a free-standing measure. It’s backed by victims’ advocacy groups and opposed by military leaders.

Guantanamo Bay

The compromise measure would give Obama flexibility to transfer detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to third countries. In April, the president renewed his first-term pledge to close the prison that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold accused and suspected terrorists.

While Guantanamo detainees could be moved to Yemen, that nation’s government would have to show that it’s capable of prosecuting and rehabilitating them.

The bill includes a House-passed provision that would bar detainees from being brought to the U.S. mainland.

The bill would authorize $284 million to boost U.S.-Israeli cooperative missile defense programs, including $33.7 million to improve the Arrow Weapon System, $117 million for the Short-Range Ballistic Missile Defense Program, also known as David’s Sling, and $22 million for development of the Arrow-3 upper-tier interceptor, to be co-developed by Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.

The compromise would meet the request of $220 million for Israel to procure more Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system batteries and interceptors.

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