House panel advances defense bill with billions for Connecticut weapons

A Virginia-class submarine

General Dynamics Electric Boat

A Virginia-class submarine

Washington – With the backing of Rep. Joe Courtney, the House Armed Services Committee this week authorized billions of dollars for weapons systems built in Connecticut, including $1.4 billion for a new fund that would pay for a new class of nuclear submarines likely to be built by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton.

The $612 billion defense authorization bill, expected to be voted on by the House in mid-May, would increase the Pentagon’ s request for Sikorsky Aircraft’s Black Hawk helicopters and for F-35s fighter jets, whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney.

The House Armed Services Committee also authorized $5.3 billion to continue the two-a-year pace of construction for Virginia-class submarines by Electric Boat and approved an amendment introduced by Courtney, D-2nd District, that would provide $10 million to upgrade C-130s flown by the National Guard in Connecticut and other states.

The legislation also would authorize $11 million for a new “ready” building at Camp Hartell in Windsor Locks for the Connecticut Air National Guard that would house first responders in the event of a suspected or actual nuclear, biological, high explosive or chemical attack.

The bill would also authorized the first allocation, nearly $1.4 billion, to a fund established by Congress last year to help the Navy replace an aging fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile subs that were built by Electric Boat.

These replacement submarines will the most expensive in the U.S. military history, costing at least $5 billion per sub, compared to the $2.7 billion price tag of the Virginia-class attack submarine.

To ease pressure on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, a separate fund, called the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” would be funded from surplus money the Pentagon finds in other accounts.

“The (Ohio-class replacement) program threatens to crowd out all other Navy shipbuilding resources,” the House bill’s summary said.

The new fund is likely to win approval from the Senate Armed Services Committee as well. A  committee aide said the panel’s chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “is very much aware of the fiscal pressure that’s going to be put on the Navy because of the Ohio-class replacement.”

But Steve Ellis, of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said this is a “unique and irresponsible way” to pay for the new fleet of nuclear submarines. He  predicted congressional appropriators would reject the funding.

“The Appropriations Committees showed their disdain for it last year by not putting any money in it,” Ellis said.

Most federal programs must be established through legislation and also funded through the appropriations process. But appropriators don’t have to adhere slavishly to authorizing legislation.

The F35A

Lockheed Martin photo

The F35A

To Ellis, the cost of buying submarines belongs in the Navy’s Shipbuilding and Conversion account, where all other naval vessels are funded. Placing it in the defense-wide budget potentially masks the huge cost of these submarines and ensures the Pentagon’s budget will increase, he said.

“It’s going to encourage other services to say, ‘hey, we’re also a national asset’ and ask for procurements out of the general defense budget, driving up the cost to the taxpayer,” he said.

If appropriated, the money in the Defense Authorization Bill would allow Electric Boat to move forward on research and development of the new nuclear sub. Actual construction of the first boat is scheduled for 2021.

Courtney, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services sea power panel,  is optimistic about the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund.

“It is important to note that our nation has faced the challenge of building and replacing our sea-based deterrence platforms in the past and found the will to get it done,” he said.

‘Obnoxious comments’

The House bill would also increase the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters requested by the Pentagon by six, to 63, at an additional cost of about $1 billion.

But it put a restriction on the release of the money to Pratt & Whitney and plane’s builder, Lockheed Martin, based on the pace of construction, which has been behind schedule.

“We’re not going to pay for something that’s not going to happen,” said a House Armed Services Committee aide.

The controversial F-35 program drew some flak lately with recent, highly critical Government Accountability Office and Pentagon inspector general reports that detailed problems with the plane’s engine, software and program oversight.

During consideration of the bill by the House Armed Services Committee this week, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., wanted to move roughly $589 million of the money authorized for the F-35 to an equipment account for the National Guard and Reserves.

That drew protests from Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who reminded Speier that she had not attended committee hearings on the F-35 and invited her to future hearings on the often-embattled fighter program.

Before her proposal was voted down, Speier thanked Turner for what she called his “obnoxious comments.”

But Turner was also critical of the F-35 program, and won inclusion of provisions that would require a require a “federally funded research and development center” to conduct a study of the F-35 engine program and to submit a report on it by March 16, 2016.

Black Hawk helicopter

Black Hawk helicopter

The study would include an assessment of the reliability, growth, and cost-reduction efforts of the program and an investigation of an engine fire that temporarily grounded the entire F-35 fleet a year ago.

Pratt & Whitney said it welcomed the additional oversight. But Turner may be building a case for the revival of a second engine for the F-35 built by a contractor other than Pratt & Whitney.

In 2011 lawmakers from Ohio and Indiana, home to engine builders General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce, backed building a second engine for the F-35, but were defeated by Courtney and others who derided the effort as wasteful “pork” spending.

The defense authorization bill also includes increased funding for Sikorsky Black Hawks. It would authorize the purchase of 102 helicopters for the Army and National Guard, eight more than the Pentagon requested, at a cost of $1.6 billion, and 29 helicopters for the Navy at a cost of about $970 million.

But the committee authorized little money, about $156 million, for continued development of the Air Force’s new Combat Rescue Helicopter.

The Air Force now uses 67 aging HH-60G Pave Hawks to rescue troops from dire situations in combat. The Pentagon planned to replace the Pave Hawks with the HH-60W next-generation Black Hawk.

The Senate is expected to begin its work on a defense authorization bill mid-May.

 

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