Congress reduces numbers of F-35s, Black Hawks

Sailors move an F-35C, the carrier version of the joint strike fighter, during sea trials aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower last year.

U.S. Department of Defense

Sailors move an F-35C, the carrier version of the joint strike fighter, during sea trials aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower last year.

Washington – Congressional negotiators sharply cut funding for Connecticut-made Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters and trimmed the number of F-35s the Pentagon would buy next year.

Senior staffers of the House and Senate armed services committees released details of a final National Defense Authorization bill Tuesday.

It rolled back hundreds of millions of dollars in authorization for spending on a number of defense programs in the House and Senate defense authorization bills, including funding for extra Joint Strike Fighters and Sikorsky-made helicopters.

The $618 billion NDAA authorized spending on 63 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in  2017, down from 66 this year. Pratt & Whitney makes the engine for the F-35.

The NDAA also limited the number of Black Hawks  the Pentagon can buy next year. It would provide $976.1 million for 36 of the Sikorsky helicopters, down from $1.77 billion for 107 Black Hawks the Defense Department is buying this year.

The authorization bill, however, would continue the two-per-year purchase of Virginia-class submarines, made jointly by Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding. It also would add $85 million to the submarine’s advance procurement fund.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he was “very pleased” the final defense bill contained the extra money, which was provided in the House version of the bill.

But mostly the negotiators stuck to President Obama’s requested funding for the Pentagon. A notable exception was in the number of airmen, soldiers and sailors in the military forces next year.

Lawmakers agreed to increase the numbers of Marines by 3,000, add 4,000 to the Air Force and add 1,000 soldiers to the Army.

The NDAA also contains about $773 million to continue preliminary work on the new Columbia class nuclear ballistic submarines, which will be built by Electric Boat. Courtney said the money allows for preliminary production work on the sub.

“They are cutting steel; they are moving forward,” he said.

The NDAA negotiators eliminated a provision in the Senate authorization bill that would draft women in the military but they kept a ban on a new round of round of base closings and realignments.

A House provision known as the Russell Amendment that exempts religious organizations with government contracts from federal civil rights law and the Americans with Disabilities Act also was eliminated from the bill. Connecticut Democrats strongly opposed this measure, saying it would roll back an Obama executive order and allow discrimination against LGBT workers.

“The Russell Amendment stood in direct contradiction to our core American values. Eliminating this dangerous provision from the final bill is a victory, but let us be clear: the fight against bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination does not end with the Russell Amendment,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

The House plans to vote on the NDAA Friday and the Senate next week. But Congress has failed to approve a defense spending bill that would actually fund the Pentagon. The authorization bill only sets spending levels and makes policy changes.

A Black Hawk helicopter

A Black Hawk helicopter

The lack of a defense spending bill, and appropriation bills for all other federal agencies, means Congress will approve a continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down. The continuing resolution funds all federal programs at 2016 levels and does not allow any money to be spent on new programs. That could be a real problem for the Columbia-class subs because some Republicans want to run the federal government on a continuing resolution until May.

Courtney joined other lawmakers last week  in asking the leaders of the House Appropriations Committee to consider the Columbia-class program an “anomaly” that could be funded under a continuing resolution.

“Without an anomaly to address this issue, the program will face delays in design and production that would have ripple effects throughout its extremely tight timeline, disrupt hiring and material orders throughout the industrial base across several states, and undermine the progress made to date in reducing costs and schedule in this program,” the lawmakers wrote the appropriators.

Courtney said he was “getting good signals” from the appropriators about his requests.

Blumenthal and Chris Murphy also wrote Senate appropriators, saying unless funding is secured for the Columbia class subs, “the Navy and contractor team would have to cut up to 2,300 jobs from the engineering, design, and support staff across Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Virginia.”

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Tuesday blasted the idea of a continuing resolution that could last until May, calling it “unprecedented and unacceptable” in a letter to Capitol Hill .

Addressed to  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the letter said the government has “never” operated under a CR through a presidential transition, nor had one that lasts this long.

“A CR through May means [the Department of Defense] would have to operate under its constraints for two-thirds of the fiscal year,” Carter wrote. “This is unprecedented and unacceptable, especially when we have so many troops operating in harm’s way.”

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