Congress authorizes boost of CT-made weapons systems

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ronald Gutridge.

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Texas at Pearl Harbor

Washington – House and Senate Armed Services panels have finished work on bills that would allow increased submarine production and boost the Pentagon’s authority to buy Sikorsky-made helicopters and F-35 fighter jets whose engines are made by Pratt & Whitney.

The House and Senate defense authorization bills, which were hammered out separately late Wednesday, differ. But both would boost the Trump administration’s request for  Connecticut-made weapons programs.

“The president’s budget…had good numbers, and then we kind of topped it off,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-3rd District, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Senate bill “exceedingly robust for Connecticut, for Connecticut jobs and economic growth, but even more important, for our national security.”

The Senate National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, would authorize $6.4 billion for Virginia-class submarines, $1.2 billion above the Trump administration request, and ramp up production from the current two-a-year pace to three in 2020.

The Senate bill also would require the Pentagon to produce a plan on submarine maintenance backlogs to determine whether some of the maintenance and repair work performed at Navy shipyards could be shifted to private shipyards like Electric Boat.

Blumenthal pressed for the maintenance report, arguing that any additional maintenance work awarded to Electric Boat will help maintain workforce levels as the shipyard prepares for increased submarine production in the years to come.

Lockheed Martin photo

The F-35A stealth fighter, the Air Force version of the plane.

The first Columbia-class nuclear ballistic submarine is scheduled to be completed at Electric Boat in 2021, with some of the work done by Virginia’s Newport News Shipbuilding. The Senate bill would authorize $1.8 billion, the amount the Pentagon requested, to continue preliminary work on the Columbia-class sub.

The Senate bill would sharply increase the number of F-35s the Pentagon requested, from 70 to 94, and authorize $1.3 billion for six CH-53K heavy-lift “King Stallion” helicopters made by Sikorsky, two more than the Pentagon requested.

Also in the Senate bill is authorization for $1 billion for 48 Sikorsky Black Hawks, $354 million for the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter program and $7 million to construct a base entry complex for Connecticut’s National Guard at Bradley International Airport. The new entryway is needed to bring the base’s entryway into compliance with the Pentagon’s anti-terrorism and force protection requirements.

There’s also approval for the Pentagon to spend $2 billion on research and development of the nation’s newest stealth bomber, the B-21, whose engines will also be made by Pratt & Whitney.

The House NDAA, meanwhile, also would authorize increased spending on submarines and opens the door to a build rate of three Virginia-class subs in 2020, 2022 and 2023.

Like the Senate bill, the House bill provides $1.9 billion for the Columbia-class program, includes language reflecting concerns about the Navy’s management of its ship and submarine maintenance workload and supports the continued development of the B-21.

But it increases the number of authorized Sikorsky Black Hawks by five, from the 48 the Pentagon requested and the Senate approved to 53.

The House bill authorizes 87 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 17 more than the Pentagon requested, but seven fewer than the Senate bill.

Sikorsky Aircraft

Sikorsky’s CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter in flight testing.

The House bill also would authorize only four CH-53K heavy lift “King Stallion” helicopters instead of the Senate’s six.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce amendments to the House and Senate bills when they are voted on later this summer that could change the tallies. Blumenthal has vowed to tried to add 15 Black Hawks for the National Guard.

“When the full Senate takes up the bill next month, I will continue fighting for the programs that keep our country safe and our state’s economy strong,” he said.

After approval by the House and Senate, differing bills would then be reconciled in a conference between House and Senate negotiators.

There’s little doubt the final National Defense Authorization Bill is likely to boost Connecticut weapons programs as the White House and key GOP leaders in Congress press for a sharp increase in defense spending in 2018.

But the final word will lie with congressional appropriators who must approve actual spending on the weapons programs.

The baseline for defense spending in 2018 proposed by the Trump administration is $603 billion. All three proposals — Trump’s, the House Armed Services’ and Senate Armed Services’ — exceed a spending cap of $549 billion. That means negotiators will need to strike a deal with Democrats who will insist any boost in defense spending be matched by increases in domestic spending.

Courtney, however, is confident there will be a way to increase defense spending.

“The Budget Control Act is not the Ten Commandments,” he said.

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