Final defense bill OKs 63 F-35s, other major CT weapons

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

Lockheed Martin photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

Washington – The Senate on Tuesday approved a final defense authorization bill, legislation that has generated its share of drama this year, paving the way for an increase in defense spending in Connecticut and the nation.

The $607 billion bill, a compromise between separate House and Senate defense authorization bills, approves congressional spending for 63 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters – six more than the Pentagon had requested and nearly 20 more than were authorized in 2015. The F-35 engines are made by Pratt & Whitney.

The bill also authorizes $1.4 billion in research and development funding for the Ohio-class  replacement submarine, a contract Electric Boat hopes to snag, and $5.3 billion for the construction of two new Virginia-class submarines that are  built by Electric Boat in partnership with Newport News Shipbuilding.

There’s also authorization to spend $632 million for the Marine Corps’ new CH-53K heavy lift helicopter being developed by Sikorsky Aircraft.

The money for these weapons systems must still be appropriated, however, most likely in a massive, omnibus spending bill Congress must approve by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown.

The defense authorization bill, approved on a 91-3 vote, also makes policy.

It includes a “Buy American” provision sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that will tighten regulations that allow the Pentagon to purchase foreign-made goods under certain conditions.

“By opening up tank-sized loopholes in the Buy American Act, the Pentagon is sending taxpayer money overseas instead of supporting businesses here in the United States,” Murphy said. “This practice is outrageous, and it’s why I’ve made strengthening the Buy American Act my crusade in Congress.”

A virginia-class attack submarine

General Dynamics Electric Boat

A Virginia-class attack submarine

The final defense bill also prevents the Pentagon from conducting a new round of base closings and calls for an independent investigation into the F-35’s engine problems. An F- 135 engine caught fire last year, but the Pentagon has said the problem is fixed.

The final defense bill also tweaks plans for a National Sea Based Deterrence Fund, a pot of money outside the Navy’s shipbuilding budget that would pay for boats to replace the current Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines at an estimated cost of $6 billion each. The bill makes the fund more flexible, but does not authorize any money for it in 2016.

The House defense authorization bill had earmarked $1.4 billion in unobligated Pentagon money for the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. The Senate had approved $3.5 billion.

The bill also contains a provision sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in partnership with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would bar the Pentagon from paying professional sports teams to conduct military tributes at their games to help recruitment efforts.

“I am … grateful that this measure stops critical defense funds and taxpayer dollars from going to professional sports organizations to honor American troops at sporting events,” Blumenthal said. “I will continue to call on these organizations to donate any amount they received for programs to honor our men and women in uniform to charities supporting service members, veterans, and their families.”

This will be the second time Congress sends a defense authorization bill to President Obama this year.

A previous bill was vetoed by the president over a funding dispute. But the matter was resolved during negotiations for a two-year budget between the White House and Republicans in Congress.

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