Sailors move an F-35C, the carrier version of the joint strike fighter, during sea trials aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2015. U.S. Department of Defense
The F-35A stealth fighter.
The F-35A stealth fighter. Lockheed Martin photo

Washington – U.S. Rep. John Larson is spearheading a push to substantially boost defense budget spending on additional F-35 fighter jets, but success is not assured.

With his co-chair of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, Larson, D-1st District, collected the signatures of 68 other House lawmakers, including all those in the Connecticut congressional delegation, on a letter that pressed for increased F-35 production.

Sent to the chairman and ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, the Oct. 4 letter said the move would lower the cost of each unit. The engines for the F-35 are produced at Pratt & Whitney in Larson’s district, and the plane is built in a Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas, which Granger represents.

“As you are aware, the F-35 is the nation’s only 5th Generation Stealth aircraft currently in production,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is the backbone of future air superiority for all three U.S. services and many of our important allies.”

Appropriators in both the House and Senate added F-35s to the Pentagon’s 2017 budget request, which had trimmed the number of Joint Strike Fighters it asked Congress for from the year before. The Pentagon’s 2017 budget requested $10.1 billion for 63 Joint Strike Fighters.

U.S. Rep. John Larson at Pratt & Whitney.
U.S. Rep. John Larson at Pratt & Whitney.

The House bill would add 11 F-35s to the Pentagon’s request. They would be five F-35As, the Air Force model of the Joint Strike Fighter; four F-35Cs that will be used on aircraft carriers by the Navy, and two F-35Bs, a vertical-landing plane slated for the Marines.

The Senate added four more jets, two F-35Bs and two F-35Cs. It also increased the amount of money for advance procurement of F-35As by $100 million.

The lawmakers argued that both the additional F-35s and the increase in advance procurement money should be added to a final defense bill.

But there are hurdles.

The defense-spending bills are at a standstill in Congress. The House approved its version, but Senate Democrats blocked their chamber’s version because they were concerned that with approval of a defense bill, Republicans would pass a stop-gap “continuing resolution” to fund all domestic spending at last year’s levels.

The government is running on a short-term continuing resolution that ends on Dec. 9. In a lame duck session after the Nov. 8 elections and before the continuing resolution expires, Democrats want to pass an omnibus spending bill – one that would contain defense spending and nearly all other government spending.

But a fight is expected over how much should be spent on defense and how much on domestic programs.

“There are a number of very important outstanding issues to resolve before the end of the year and none more so than passing a defense bill,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

U.S.. Rep. Joe Courtney.

Courtney, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said the House lready has approved a “robust” defense bill, which funds “a number of important priorities for Connecticut.”

“It’s my hope that after the elections season has ended that we can come put politics aside and come together to pass a strong bill,” he said.

A sub program in peril

The Pentagon has started 12 of the last 17 fiscal years on stop-gap funding bills based on the previous year’s spending levels.

That prohibits the military from starting new programs or increasing production of weapons systems, frustrating Connecticut’s defense industry.

The failure to approve a final defense bill has imperiled the Pentagon’s plans for The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program — also known as the Ohio-class replacement — that was expected to receive $773 million in advance procurement funding in fiscal year 2017.

If there is no agreement on a budget, and Congress passes another short-term continuing resolution, the Pentagon will not be able to award a detailed design contract by the end of calendar year 2016. That contract is expected to be won by Electric Boat in Groton.

To make matters worse, the House and Senate have had problems negotiating a final defense authorization bill, which would set funding levels and the policies under which money will be spent.

Connecticut lawmakers want final bills to increase the number of Sikorsky-built helicopters, as well as the F-35s, over the Pentagon’s request. Besides trimming the number of F-35s, the Pentagon slashed the number of Black Hawks it wanted to buy from Sikorsky. It kept funding for Virginia-class submarines at the two-a-year level.

A Blackhawk helicopter.
A Black Hawk helicopter.

The Senate added 15 Black Hawks for the National Guard to the Pentagon’s request, and both House and Senate defense bills would boost the number of Sikorsky-made helicopters for the Army and other services.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who will be a negotiator on the final defense authorization bill, said, “I can’t tell you what the final numbers will be.”

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said there will be pressure on the House and Senate to cut back.

“If past practice is any indication, we will get a compromise at the 11th hour that will fund the Pentagon at the level the administration requested,” Thompson said.

But he also said “we might see some additional F-35s.”

“Seventy congressmen have sent letters saying we need to get back to the original plan for ramping up production because if you don’t, each plane costs more,” Thompson said.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, disagrees.

“There’s a lot of fighting for limited cash, to add [the F-35s], other things would have to fall by the wayside,” he said.

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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