Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel Defense Department photo
Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel
Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel Defense Department photo

Washington – Sikorsky’s plans to build new helicopters for the Air Force were kept alive as President Obama unveiled his new budget Tuesday. At the same time, Pratt & Whitney’s plans were nicked, and Electric Boat’s remain unscathed.

Obama’s $496 billion budget request for the military in 2015 outlines the Pentagon’s newest strategy and includes a list of weapons systems and troop benefits it wants for next year.

Although the president’s actual budget showed no money to replace the Air Force’s aging combat rescue helicopters, Air Force Major Gen. Jim Martin said a last-minute decision was made Tuesday to fund the development of a new rescue helicopter that would be built by Sikorsky. Written materials submitted to Congress had said the program had been postponed.

Martin said he was informed of the decision before he arrived at a briefing with reporters Tuesday afternoon. He also said a contract award would be made this year. In November, the Air Force said it would select Sikorsky to provided 112 new helicopters if it could award a contract.

An Air Force statement said ” due to the criticality of this mission” the Air Force will shift about $430 million from other Air Force priorities to award the combat rescue helicopter to Sikorsky.

“Congress was pressuring the Air Force to buy new rescue helicopters because the current fleet they have has saved thousands of lives since 9/11,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.

Connecticut’s congressional delegation, in particular, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, has championed Sikorsky’s efforts to produce the new helicopter for the Air Force.

Thompson said the money the Pentagon will use to initiate the new helicopter program will only be to develop and test a prototype.

“But this is good news for Sikorsky because this means it can keep its engineering teams and proceed with development,” Thompson said.

The budget also called for the purchase of 79 new UH-60 Blackhawks, built by Sikorsky, that would cost $1.4 billion.

“Sikorsky and our teammate Lockheed Martin thank the U.S. Air Force for enabling us to build a modern and affordable combat rescue helicopter that will replace the service’s rapidly aging HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet,” said Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens. “We are honored to be part of the sacred mission of leaving no combatant of the U.S. Armed Forces or its allies behind on the battlefield.”

As a cost-saving measure, the Pentagon’s budget trimmed the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft it planned to buy next year, from 45 to 39. The engines for those planes are produced by Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.

“We’re still going forward with the program, but less than a year ago because of affordability,” said Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller.

The proposed $496 billion in defense spending is part of a $3.9 trillion federal budget Obama has sent to Congress.

Lawmakers are likely to ignore most of the president’s budget, but it will be harder to ignore the Pentagon’s budget requests to defend the nation.

Domestic spending in budget may serve a different purpose. It’s filled with political messaging and Democratic arguments that will be used by party members heading into the midterm elections in November.

Constrained by budget caps, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has decided to field a smaller, but more modern and technologically savvy force.

“Although the future force will be smaller, it will be ready, capable and able to project power over great distances,” Hagel wrote in the introduction to the Quadrennial Defense Review, which was released as a companion to the budget.

Under the Quadrennial Review’s strategic plan, the Army would shrink from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to 440,000 to 450,000 over the next five years, the smallest force since 1940, when the Army had 267,000 active duty troops.

The Navy, however, would be less affected, good news for Naval Submarine Base New London.

The Pentagon’s budget also contains about $6.3 billion to build two Virginia Class submarines at Electric Boat and prepare for future construction of additional subs.

The Pentagon’s investment in submarines reflects a shift in strategy in the wind-down after nearly 13 years of war.

The Quadrennial Review, created this year before the crisis in Ukraine, shifts U.S. military focus to the Asia-Pacific region to the United States. This creates a need for submarines.

The Defense Department also acknowledges there are still many “friction points” in the Middle East, and that the United States has the responsibility to defend European allies.

As it has in the last few years, the Pentagon’s budget asks for another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) to begin in 2017.

“Delays in approving this request will mean that funds needed for investments in readiness and modernization will be spent instead on unneeded infrastructure,” a Defense Department statement said.

The Naval Submarine Base New London, which was taken off the shutdown list at the last minute in the last base closing round, could be vulnerable if the Pentagon shutters facilities again. But Congress has ignored the Pentagon’s repeated requests for a new BRAC. However the sub base is likely to be thwarted in its effort to modernize and expand because the Pentagon has slashed the military construction budget.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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