U.S. Senate Sends Obama $577.1 Billion Defense Policy Measure

The U.S. Defense Department’s detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would stay open and planes the Air Force wants to retire would continue to fly under a military policy bill headed to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

The $577.1 authorization bill, which the Senate cleared today on a vote of 89-11, sets military policy and spending targets for fiscal 2015, which started Oct. 1.

“Congress has come together over the years to make improvements in pay, benefits and health care for the men and women of the military; to reform the way in which we buy the weapons they use to carry out their missions,” Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a farewell speech on the floor today.

The bill, passed by the House last week, rejects many of the Defense Department’s cost-cutting efforts.

The A-10, a close-air support craft from the Cold War era, would be retained despite the Pentagon’s desire to retire it. The legislation also would ban another round of military base closings and continue purchases of radar-jamming jets made by Chicago-based Boeing Co.

Raytheon, Lockheed

Other industry winners in the bill, H.R. 3979, include Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co., which makes Tomahawk missiles, and Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which produces F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes.

The Pentagon asked Congress for the money to buy 100 Tomahawks, which played a high-profile role in the military intervention in Libya. The legislation would authorize $82 million, enough for an additional 96 missiles.

The Defense Department would get full funding for the 34 F-35s it requested. The fighter is the costliest U.S. weapons program and one of those given the most scrutiny by lawmakers.

On policy issues, Congress reasserted its ban on closing the Guantanamo prison where detainees suspected of terrorist activities are held. Obama has long sought to shut it down and an earlier Senate version of the bill would have let the Defense Department relocate detainees to the continental U.S. once the president presented a plan with strict security provisions.

The measure also extends the Pentagon’s authority to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State. The measure would provide two-year authority to reprogram funds to carry out the program.

Boeing’s Growlers

The measure would permit an additional $450 million to be spent this year for five of Boeing’s EA-18G Growler aircraft.

While the Pentagon didn’t seek money for the planes, Navy officials told Congress that buying more Growlers topped their wish list for items that didn’t make the budget request.

It also would authorize $350 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which includes a $175 million increase over the Pentagon’s budget request that was sought by Israel.

The measure would require that the funds be used according to a U.S.-Israel agreement on co-production mandating that 55 percent of parts and components be made in the U.S. Iron Dome is now built in Israel by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.

The bill also adds $120 million for upgrades of General Dynamics Corp.’s Abrams battle tanks. BAE Systems Plc’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle program would be boosted by $37 million for a total of $144.5 million.

Russian Engines

The measure would prod the Pentagon to transition from the use of Russian rocket engines to a domestic alternative for national security space launches.

It would authorize $220 million for the development of a U.S. propulsion system by 2019 and prohibit the secretary of defense from buying launch services using Russian rocket engines other than those already under contract as of February 1, 2014. The funding bill follows a similar path.

United Launch Alliance LLC, the venture of Boeing and Lockheed that propels the satellites into space, has said it has a two-year supply of the engines and is seeking to stockpile more because a U.S.-built replacement isn’t scheduled for flight certification until 2019. Lawmakers have questioned the reliability of Russian supplies amid the conflict over its intervention in Ukraine.

Budget Reductions

The legislation would authorize $577.1 billion in budget authority for national defense programs, down from $625.1 billion in the previous year -- reflecting continued reductions in core defense spending and a decline in funds dedicated to the war in Afghanistan.

That includes about $495.9 billion in base discretionary spending, $63.7 billion for overseas contingency operations, and $17.5 billion for the defense activities of the Department of Energy and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

A separate bill, H.R. 83, uses similar levels to distribute funding for the year. It would give the Pentagon a base budget of $490.2 billion, plus $6.6 billion for military construction and $64 billion for war operations.

Congressional negotiators granted part of the Defense Department’s request for help in slowing the growth of health-care spending.

The bill would increase out-of-pocket costs for pharmacy co-payments under the Tricare military health system. The plan’s beneficiaries who aren’t on active duty would see a one-time increase of $3 for pharmacy co-payments for retail prescriptions and mail-order non-generic prescriptions.

‘Warthog’ Fleet

The bill would keep the A-10 aircraft flying in 2015. The Air Force pressured Congress to retire the “Warthog” fleet to save more than $4 billion over five years, a move opposed by several generations of combat veterans who say it provides close-air protection more advanced aircraft can’t duplicate.

The measure would let the Pentagon place as many as 36 aircraft into a reduced operating posture. The exception requires a Pentagon cost assessment and evaluation study and a certification by the secretary of defense.

The legislation rejects the Army’s proposal to begin moving all eight battalions of Army National Guard AH-64 Apache helicopters to the active-duty Army.

The negotiators agreed to prohibit any transfer of Apaches in fiscal 2015. Their agreement would let personnel-related preparation activities and planning go ahead.

It would let the Army transfer as many as 48 aircraft in fiscal 2016, essentially permitting a restructuring to begin then. Negotiators also agreed to create a National Commission on the Future of the U.S. Army, which would report back to Congress by Feb. 1, 2016.

Shipbuilding

The bill would maintain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. It would authorize about $800 million for the refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington, for which the Pentagon requested no money.

The measure also would allow as much as $800 million to be spent for one additional LPD-17 class amphibious ship, which is built by Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. In the companion spending bill, lawmakers provided $1 billion for that additional ship.

The Navy had proposed 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 authorization bill directs the Navy to modernize two cruisers in 2015 and would let the service reduce the crew size while cruisers are undergoing work.

Sexual Assault

Lawmakers also sought to strengthen provisions for the prevention of sexual assault in the military. The changes include the elimination of the “good soldier defense,” the consideration of general military character toward the probability of innocence in sexual-assault prosecutions.

Victims would also be consulted as to their preference for prosecuting offenders by court-martial or through civilian channels.

Congressional leaders also tacked on some unrelated provisions, including land transfers and a go-ahead to London-based Rio Tinto Plc and BHP Billiton Ltd to develop North America’s largest copper mine in southeast Arizona on land now owned by the federal government.

The House had passed the bill on a vote of 300-119.

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