Pentagon Urges Tough Choices After Hagel’s Cuts Spurned

The Pentagon challenged U.S. lawmakers to pass a defense policy bill making hard decisions on future spending after House and Senate lawmakers rejected Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s cost-cutting strategies.

“It’s the secretary’s expectation that Congress” will “understand the wisdom behind those tough choices, make tough choices themselves,” Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said yesterday at a news conference.

Separate versions of the fiscal 2015 defense policy bill passed by the House and approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee May 22 would block Hagel’s proposals to retire the A-10 aircraft of the Cold War era, procure fewer radar-jamming jets made by Boeing Co. and potentially reduce the Navy from 11 to 10 aircraft carriers.

Lawmakers also rejected plans to close unneeded domestic military bases and curb some personnel benefits. While the bills stay within budget limits for this year, Hagel has said deeper reductions must be made on the assumption that the mandatory budget-cutting process known as sequestration will return in full force in fiscal 2016.

Obama’s advisers have threatened that he may veto the House’s $601 billion authorization measure, saying in a May 19 statement that it would “eliminate more than $50 billion in savings over the next five years.”

Defending the House’s rejection of Hagel’s budget-cutting initiatives, Republican Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in floor debate this week that the legislation “guards against achieving false short-term savings at the expense of vital long-term strategic capabilities.”

Months to Come

Skirmishing on the authorization bill for the year that begins Oct. 1 may continue for months to come. The measure approved by the Senate committee may be amended when it reaches the floor, and a final version of the legislation eventually will be negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee.

The House and Senate appropriations committees have yet to act on their separate spending measures that fund programs.

Defense contractors will lobby to shape the final legislation to their advantage. One difference between the House and Senate versions of the authorization measure may pit Lockheed Martin Corp., the No. 1 U.S. contractor, against Northrop Grumman Corp., the fifth-biggest.

The House-passed bill would prohibit the Pentagon from taking any steps toward retiring the U-2 spy plane made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, as the military proposes doing in 2016.

Global Hawk

The Senate committee’s version would shift money from upgrades of Global Hawk drones made by Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop to the U-2, according to Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate committee. The initial version of the spyplane made its first flight in 1955.

Both bills 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.

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 electronic warfare 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 administration’s budget request.

Carrier Fleet

The House authorized $450 million for five Growlers, while the Senate committee’s 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.

As a step to ensure that the Navy keeps all 11 aircraft carriers, the House bill would allot $483.6 million toward refueling and overhauling the 24-year-old USS George Washington, for which the Pentagon requested no money in fiscal 2015. The Senate committee took similar action, allowing the Navy to spend as much as $650 million.

The Defense Department has said it may have to call off the George Washington’s refurbishing by Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. if sequestration goes forward.

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. Obama vowed to close the prison more than five years ago, and his advisers cited that provision as another cause for a potential veto.

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 defense policy bill is H.R. 4435.

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