Roxana Tiron (c) 2014, Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — The House Thursday passed a $577.1 billion measure rejecting Defense Department efforts to cut military costs. The legislation would let the A-10 aircraft of the Cold War era keep flying and continue purchases of radar- jamming jets made by Boeing Co.
The bill passed the House 300-119, without any changes. The Senate probably will follow suit next week. The annual defense policy bill sets military policy and spending targets for fiscal 2015, which started Oct. 1.
While laws covering many other parts of the government routinely are allowed to lapse because of disagreements or disinterest, a defense authorization has been enacted for 52 consecutive years, a record lawmakers cite as a sign of bipartisan support for the military and the sacrifices made by American forces worldwide.
“Right now, they are walking patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon said Thursday in a floor speech. “They are at sea within missile range of Iran. They are flying wingtip-to-wingtip against Russia bombers over the North Sea. They are nose-to-nose with the North Koreans. They are sweating in the equatorial heat of Africa, fighting a horrible disease.”
The legislation would authorize $577.1 billion in budget authority for national defense programs, down from $625.1 billion in the previous year, reflecting continued reductions in core defense spending and a decline in funds dedicated to the war in Afghanistan.
The new total includes about $495.9 billion in base discretionary spending, $63.7 billion for overseas contingency operations, and $17.5 billion for the defense activities of the Department of Energy and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
On issues related to U.S. foreign policy, the measure would authorize the training of moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State terrorists, extend a ban on closing the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and bar the purchase of Russian rocket engines not already under contract for national-security space launches.
The measure would prohibit the retirement of the A-10 close air support plane and ban another round of military base closings, rejecting two of the Pentagon’s cost-cutting proposals.
Congressional negotiators granted part of the Defense Department’s request for help in slowing the growth of health- care spending: The bill would increase out-of-pocket costs for pharmacy co-payments under the Tricare military health system. The plan’s beneficiaries who aren’t on active duty would see a one-time increase of $3 for pharmacy co-payments for retail prescriptions and mail-order non-generic prescriptions.
The bill would keep the A-10 aircraft flying in 2015. The Air Force pressured Congress to retire the “Warthog” fleet to save more than $4 billion over five years, a move opposed by several generations of combat veterans who say it provides close-air protection more advanced aircraft can’t duplicate.
The measure would let the Pentagon place as many as 36 aircraft into a reduced operating posture. The exception requires a Pentagon cost assessment and evaluation study and a certification by the secretary of defense.
The Government Accountability Office also is assigned to review the A-10 program, congressional aides said. The bill would authorize an additional $331 million from the base budget to operate the A-10 fleet, according to a committee fact sheet.
The legislation rejects the Army’s proposal to begin moving all eight battalions of Army National Guard AH-64 Apache helicopters to the active-duty Army.
The negotiators agreed to prohibit any transfer of Apaches in fiscal 2015. Their agreement would let personnel-related preparation activities and planning go ahead.
It would allow the Army to transfer as many as 48 aircraft in fiscal 2016, essentially permitting a restructuring to begin then. Negotiators also agreed to create a National Commission on the Future of the U.S. Army, which would report back to Congress by Feb. 1, 2016.
Industry winners in the bill include Waltham, Massachusetts- based Raytheon Co., which makes Tomahawk missiles; Chicago-based Boeing, which makes a radar-jamming jet known as the Growler; and Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which produces F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes.
The Pentagon asked Congress for the money to buy 100 Tomahawks, which played a high-profile role in the military intervention in Libya. The compromise would authorize $82 million for an additional 96 missiles for a total of $276.3 million.
The measure also would permit an additional $450 million to be spent this year for five EA-18G Growler aircraft.
While the Pentagon didn’t seek money for the planes, Navy officials told Congress that buying more Growlers topped their wish list for items that didn’t make the budget request.
Lockheed would see the Pentagon’s full budget request approved for its F-35s, the costliest U.S. weapons system.
The bill would authorize $350 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which includes a $175 million increase over the budget request that was sought by Israel.
It would require that the funds be used according to a U.S.-Israel agreement on co-production mandating that 55 percent of parts and components be made in the U.S. Iron Dome is now built in Israel by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.
The measure also adds $120 million for upgrades of General Dynamics Corp.’s Abrams battle tanks. BAE System’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle program would be boosted by $37 million for a total of $144.5 million.
The measure would prod the Pentagon to transition from the use of Russian rocket engines to a domestic alternative for national security space launches. It would authorize $220 million for the development of a U.S. propulsion system by 2019 and prohibit the secretary of defense from buying launch services using Russian rocket engines other than those already under contract as of February 1, 2014.
United Launch Alliance, the venture of Boeing and Lockheed that propels the satellites into space, has said it has a two-year supply of the engines and is seeking to stockpile more because a U.S.-built replacement isn’t scheduled for flight certification until 2019. Lawmakers have questioned the reliability of Russian supplies amid the conflict over its intervention in Ukraine.
The bill would maintain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. It would authorize about $800 million for the refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington, for which the Pentagon requested no money.
The measure also would allow as much as $800 million to be spent for one additional LPD-17 class amphibious ship, which is built by Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. The bill directs the Navy to modernize two cruisers in 2015 and would let the service reduce the crew size while cruisers are undergoing work.
The Navy had proposed to sideline 11 Ticonderoga-class cruisers, at a projected savings of about $4 billion over five years, with plans to upgrade the ships in the future.
Approval of the measure is needed to extend the Pentagon’s authority to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State. The measure would provide two-year authority to reprogram funds to carry out the Syria train-and- equip program. The language reflects the authority that was included in a stopgap funding bill earlier this year.
Negotiators also sought to strengthen provisions for the prevention of sexual assault in the military. Some of the changes include the elimination of the “good soldier defense,” the consideration of general military character toward the probability of innocence in sexual-assault prosecutions. Victims would also be consulted as to their preference for prosecuting offenders by court-martial or through civilian channels.
Because the congressional session is almost over and this is viewed as a must-past bill, congressional leaders tacked on some unrelated provisions, including land transfers and a go- ahead to London-based Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton to develop North America’s largest copper mine in southeast Arizona on land now owned by the federal government.
Some opponents of that provision had asked to be allowed to vote on stripping it out. They were turned down.
The legislation came to the House floor as an amendment to H.R. 3979. The measure is being named “the Carl Levin and Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015.” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and McKeon, a California Republican, are retiring.