Connecticut fares well in military funding bill

Washington — The $631 billion defense bill approved Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee rejects Pentagon cuts that would have slowed the flow of business to Connecticut’s defense industry and eliminated a mission of its Air National Guard.

“What we have is really a very robust budget even in the face of challenges,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Unlike a defense bill approved by the House last week that exceeded budget caps on defense spending, the bill approved by the Senate panel  is  $6 billion less than this year’s budget, meeting the budget caps.

But like the House-approved bill, the Senate legislation rejects Pentagon plans to cut the number of Virginia-class submarines built by Electric Boat in Groton, Conn.

The bill also rejects the Air Force’s plan to reduce the numbers of Air National guardsmen. The Pentagon’s proposed cuts to Air Guard personnel would likely have affected the Connecticut Air Guard.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, whose members include Blumenthal,  and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn,. approved the $631 billion bill unanimously. A vote on it in the full Senate is expected next month.

Like the defense bill approved by the House last week, the Senate legislation also would overturn an Air Force proposal to retire all of its C-27 cargo planes, which were slated to be flown by the 103rd Airlift Wing based in Connecticut.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon’s proposed cuts hit the Guard disproportionally and Air Force officials were not the “least bit convincing” in explaining why the reductions are necessary.

The Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to allocate $1.3 billion for the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, built by Sikorsky in Connecticut.

But it did not include a provision, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, in the House defense bill, that would force the Pentagon to rebid the contract for the helicopters that the U.S. military provides to Afghan forces. A Russian company now holds that contract.

The Senate bill instead calls for a Government Accountability Office study of the Pentagon’s relationship with the Russian  company.

“The end result I believe will be the same,” Blumenthal said.

Unlike the House, the Senate accepted the Pentagon’s cuts to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the military’s costliest program.

The Defense Department wants to save $1.6 billion by eliminating 13 planned fighters, whose engines are built by Pratt &Whitney in Connecticut.

The Senate also maintained the Pentagon’s current policy of holding back the purchase of six Joint Strike Fighters to prevent cost overruns by Lockheed Martin, the prime manufacturer of the plane.

“This continues a policy of tough love,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman also said the Senate  strongly supports the aircraft and has no problems with its  Connecticut-manufactured engine.

The Senate agreed with the House in rejecting the Pentagon’s call for another round of base closings, determined by a new Base Realignment and Closing Commission.

“As we said from the outset, BRAC is absolutely dead,” Blumenthal said.

The Senate bill would also cap at $230,000 — the amount the vice president gets paid — the portion of a salary a defense company  executive could charge the U.S. government.   Currently, hundreds of thousands of dollars in executive salaries are included in defense contracts.

“We just thought that was wrong,” Lieberman said.

The defense bill also includes a proposal sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would order the military to come up with a plan to send women into the front lines of battle. The House bill would not lift the military’s ban on women in combat.

If the full Senate approves the defense bill next month, as is expected, the differences between the Senate and House legislation would be negotiated.