Congress Spurns Pentagon Cuts From A-10 to Base Closings

The U.S. House and Senate are both headed toward protecting the A-10 aircraft of the Cold War era, radar-jamming jets made by Boeing Co. and the Navy’s carrier fleet, spurning the Pentagon’s cost-cutting strategies.

The Republican-led House passed yesterday a $601 billion defense authorization measure for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and the Democratic-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version hours later.

Both bills reject Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposals to find savings by retiring older aircraft, curbing some benefits for military personnel and closing excess domestic bases in an era of declining defense budgets. Hagel’s spokesman has said the secretary will press lawmakers to restore the cuts. The White House threatened a possible veto of the House bill, which passed 325-98.

The legislation “guards against achieving false short-term savings at the expense of vital long-term strategic capabilities,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said during floor debate this week.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its draft of the defense policy measure by a vote of 25-1, with Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, as the sole dissenter, according to a committee listing of roll calls from its closed-door session. The bill goes next to the Senate floor.

Both versions would bar for a year the Pentagon’s plan to retire the A-10, a 1970s-era combat plane known as the Warthog. The Air Force projected savings of $4.2 billion over five years from eliminating all 238 A-10s.

Base Closings

House and Senate lawmakers also rebuffed a Pentagon call to permit another round of base closings in 2017.

The House and the Senate panel seek to keep Chicago-based Boeing’s production line in St. Louis open to give the Navy an option to continue buying EA-18G Growler radar-jamming jets. While the Pentagon didn’t request any money for the planes, Navy officials told Congress that buying more Growlers topped their wish list for items that didn’t make the budget.

The House authorized $450 million for five Growlers, while the Senate’s draft measure took steps to help keep the production line open by stretching existing funding and adding an additional $25 million, for a total of $100 million.

While the House would prohibit the Pentagon from taking any steps to retire Lockheed Martin Corp.’s U-2 spy plane in 2016, the Senate committee’s version wouldn’t directly restrict the retirement plan. Instead, the panel would shift money from Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk drones to the U-2, according to Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Navy Ships

As a step to ensure that the Navy keeps a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, the House bill would allot $483.6 million for the refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington, for which the Pentagon requested no money. The Senate committee took similar action, allowing the Navy to spend as much as $650 million. The money would come from underperforming programs, Levin told reporters yesterday.

The Defense Department has said it may have to call off the Washington’s refurbishing by Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. if the budget-cutting process known as sequestration returns in full force in fiscal 2016.

Guided-Missile Cruisers

Once place where the House and Senate bills differ is on the Navy’s guided-missile cruisers. The House would bar the Pentagon from mothballing the guided-missile cruisers and amphibious landing dock ships. The Senate committee’s bill backs the Navy’s proposal to sideline 11 Ticonderoga-class cruisers, at a projected savings of about $4 billion over five years, with plans to upgrade the ships in the future.

The two chambers also differ on the Littoral Combat Ship, the troubled vessel intended for operations in shallow waters close to shore. The House would authorize the purchase of two of the three ships requested by the Pentagon in fiscal 2016. The Senate panel would authorize all three.

The Littoral Combat Ship is made in two versions by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed and Henderson, Australia-based Austal Ltd.

The House voted to halt an Army plan to transfer Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard to the regular Army. The Army estimates it would save roughly $12 billion by shifting about 100 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to the Guard and using the Apaches to replace OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters for Army combat missions.

Governors Protest

Governors from all 50 states sent a letter to President Barack Obama earlier this year opposing the plan.

The Senate committee’s bill would establish a commission to look at the future relationship between the Army and National Guard after more than a decade of war in which the Pentagon relied heavily on the reserve military force. Levin said the measure would allow the transfer of no more than 48 Apaches from the Guard to the Army until the commission reports its findings.

“We worked out a good deal that will preserve the combat role of the National Guard,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters.

The Senate committee went along with a House provision authorizing the Pentagon to start a program to replace the Russian-made RD-180 engine used to power Atlas V rockets, which since the mid-1990s have launched some U.S. military satellites

A Russian official this month threatened to stop selling the engines in retaliation for U.S sanctions imposed for Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis. The House bill would authorize $220 million for “RD-180 Replacement,” and the Senate panel calls for $100 million.

Competition Sought

Levin said his committee’s bill also includes language intended to ensure “as much competition as possible between” United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing, and California billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

Levin said he isn’t in favor of breaking up a block purchase of as many as 36 launches through 2017 that the Air Force already has awarded to the joint venture. Musk’s company, known as SpaceX, is suing in an effort to overturn that contract.

The committee in its report on the legislation will direct the Air Force to set aside more than the 14 initial missions selected for competition between the Lockheed-Boeing alliance and SpaceX, Levin said.

Guantanamo Bay

One of the major differences that may have to be resolved in negotiations between the House and the Senate concerns Obama’s long-delayed plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The House continued its opposition to shutting the prison and moving the detainees to the U.S.

The Senate panel included a provision that would let the Defense Department relocate detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the continental U.S. once the president presented a plan for the move that included strict security measures, Levin said. Congress could vote to reject the plan, and the president would have the right to veto the disapproval.

The Senate panel’s bill would authorize the full Pentagon request of $496 billion in discretionary spending, according to Levin. The bill doesn’t include separate funding for war operations because the administration put in a placeholder request of $79.4 billion, Levin said.

The administration has delayed formulating its war operations budget until it determines whether the U.S. will maintain a presence in Afghanistan after combat forces withdraw by the end of this year.

The defense policy bill is H.R. 4435.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.