Washington – The Republican head of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry of Texas, is hoping the Trump White House will soon approve an $18 billion supplemental defense bill that would be likely to boost production in Connecticut’s defense industry.
Thornberry hopes the supplemental bill restores defense spending House members approved last year – but which was cut from a final defense bill in conference with the Senate.
That could mean adding 11 F-35s to the 66 Joint Strike Fighters authorized by Congress this year and another 36 Sikorsky-made Black Hawk helicopters. The Pentagon was authorized to purchase only 36 new Black Hawks this year.
At a press conference last week, Thornberry said he hoped the Trump administration would soon act on a supplemental.
“The fiscal year is marching ahead, so to have any hope of spending the money efficiently, we need to get it done quickly,” Thornberry said. “So we have encouraged them to get that to us by March 1 … and got a pretty positive response.”
Defense hawks are hoping the Trump administration will agree to the supplemental, and an increase in defense spending in the next annual budget. President Donald Trump has vowed to rebuild the military — “to load it up” with “beautiful new equipment,” as he said at the U.S. Central Command in Florida earlier this month.
The supplemental is not likely to boost the budget for Virginia-class submarines built by Electric Boat. The two-a-year pace is expected to continue this year.
But Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd Districts, hopes the supplemental will reverse a long-time trend of shifting Navy maintenance and repair work away from private shipyards like Electric Boat to those the Pentagon owns, including those at Portsmouth, N.H.; Norfolk, Va.; and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“The public yards are really backed up,” Courtney said.
The backlog, the result of budget cuts and Congress’ inability to approve long-term budgets, was a key problem outlined by Adm. William Moran, the Navy’s vice chief of naval operations, at a recent congressional hearing.
“For a variety of reasons, our shipyards and aviation depots are struggling to get our ships and airplanes through maintenance periods on time,” Moran said. “It has become clear to me that the Navy’s overall readiness has reached its lowest level in many years.”
Courtney said deployment demands and limited resources forced the Navy to tap money that would have gone to maintenance and repair.
“They really did have a haircut,” he said.
Also hurting the Navy’s efforts to keep its fleet in good working order was Congress’ adoption of “continuing resolutions,” which continued to fund the federal government at previous year’s levels and provided no new money for maintenance and repair.
Budget fight ahead
Although federal policy presses the Navy to use public shipyards for maintenance and repair, there are notable exceptions, such as the work that’s being done now at EB on the Montpelier, a Los Angeles-class submarine.
The Navy awarded Electric Boat several contracts to repair and overhaul the Montpelier.
“The public shipyard capacity was non-existent for taking on the Montpelier,” Courtney said.
He says EB should get more of that business to keep it busy until production ramps up on the new Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine that Electric Boat will build.
Electric Boat is designing the first of 12 Columbia-class submarines with Newport News Shipbuilding. Construction of the first boat is planned to begin in 2021.
Courtney says more maintenance and repair work “would really be a nice filling for the peaks and valleys” in Electric Boat’s Navy work until Columbia-class production is up to speed.
The supplemental, if it’s backed by the Trump administration, is likely to be considered along with a new budget in March for the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
But even if the Trump Pentagon presses for a boost in defense spending, there could be a push back from the administration’s new budget director, former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a fierce budget hawk. Mulvaney could clash with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has said in a memo he wants a big – and immediate – increase in defense spending.
“You’ve spent your entire congressional career pitting the debt against our military, and each time, at least for you, our military was less important,” Sen. John McCain, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lectured Mulvaney at his confirmation hearing.
To avoid budget caps, increases in defense spending may tap the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is an emergency fund established in 2011 to pay for unexpected military costs overseas and isn’t constrained by budget caps.
But using that fund has been criticized by conservatives and anti-spending groups as “budget gimmickry.” An increase in defense spending also would result in demands by Democrats for similar increases in domestic spending.