Washington – The House has approved a $619 billion defense bill and the Senate is expected to follow this week, but there’s a push to add F-35s, Black Hawk helicopters and other military hardware to the Pentagon’s shopping list early next year, right after President-elect Donald Trump assumes office.
The National Defense Authorization Act approves spending on two Virginia-class submarines in fiscal 2017 as well as funding for initial production of the heavy-lift CH-53K helicopter built by Sikorsky and the development of the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber, which will be powered by Pratt & Whitney engines.
But it cut 11 F-35s, whose engines are also built by Pratt & Whitney, and $440 million for Sikorsky made Black Hawks that had been added to the Pentagon’s request by the U.S. House of Representatives.
House and Senate negotiators of a final NDAA excluded these jets and helicopters – and other military hardware – in favor of manpower increases for each of the military services.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., said he hopes the new Trump administration will provide him an opportunity to put back the F-35s, helicopters and other defense programs that were cut.
“My hope is that the new administration will come to us with a supplemental request as soon as they get their feet on the ground,” Thornberry said at the Foreign Policy Initiative’s 2016 forum in Washington, D.C., last week.
The president-elect has indicated a strong desire for a bigger military and fewer spending restrictions. Trump says he wants to put an end to the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect in 2013 known as the sequester, with would add about $500 billion in defense dollars over 10 years. During his campaign, aides said Trump is open to boosting defense spending even more, but the president-elect has not outlined how large that increase would be.
Any supplemental bill would have to be approved by Congress fairly early in the year, before the Trump administration sets its spending priorities for 2017. Even though the NDAA authorized spending on defense programs, the money still needs to be appropriated.
Republican leaders are expected to push a new continuing resolution though Congress this week. Because the current Congress did not pass most appropriations bills, the federal government is being funded through a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 9.
The new resolution is expected to run through March, but could be extended until April or May. Then the new Congress would set the 2017 budgets for all federal agencies, including the Pentagon.
“The Trump team is trying to keep all options open until 2017,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. Thompson said Trump is expected to boost the shipbuilding budget and want to buy more helicopters for the Army.
“Trump said he wants a Navy that is 42 warships bigger than the current plan,” Thompson said. Right now, the Navy has 308 ships and submarines.
That boost to the Navy’s budget could mean an increase in submarines, especially adding an additional sub in 2021, when production of the Virginia class is slated to drop from two-a-year to one.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said there are certain obstacles facing those who want to increase the military’s budget.
The chief one is that not all Republicans favor getting rid of the sequester on defense spending, and Democrats insist removing the sequester from defense spending be accompanied by a removal of the sequester on domestic spending.
But Courtney said if Thornberry insists on a defense supplemental, he very well may get one – if the Senate agrees. Spokesman for Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., did not respond to questions about the senator’s position on the issue.
“I fully respect the fact that (Thornberry) is a serious legislator,” Courtney said. “I fully expect he’s not playing word games.”