Senate panel adds $1 billion for six more F-35s in defense measure

The first squadron of F-35s is scheduled to be declared combat-ready by the U.S. military this summer.
The first squadron of F-35s is scheduled to be declared combat-ready by the U.S. military this summer. Via Bloomberg

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $612 billion defense policy bill that adds funding for more F-35 fighters from Lockheed Martin and F/A-18 jets from Boeing than was requested by the Pentagon.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s Republican chairman, called the first authorization measure under his leadership a “reform bill” that includes an overhaul of weapons purchasing making military service chiefs more responsible for cost overruns.

McCain, who has been a critic of the Fort Worth-based F-35 program in the past, backed the additional $1 billion for six additional F-35s for the Marine Corps, saying that “the airplane is progressing.”

“We are committed to the acquisition of some 2,000” of the fighter jets, he said, so “we felt that it was appropriate to go ahead and move forward” since money was available.

The first squadron of the F-35B model is scheduled to be declared combat-ready as soon as July, and will be stationed in McCain’s home state.

The policy bill for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, approved 22-4 on Thursday, largely tracks a companion bill pending in the House, including putting funds into an account intended for war operations in order to sidestep budget caps.

The strategy has prompted veto threats from the Obama administration, which wants Congress to remove the caps on both defense and domestic spending. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the Armed Services panel’s top Democrat, cited the “off-budget gimmick” in voting against a bill that usually draws bipartisan support in the committee.

In addition to the $90.2 billion in war funding, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, the measure would provide $496 billion for the Defense Department, with the remainder for defense-related activities in agencies such as the Energy Department.

Action on the defense authorization bill is “still a long way from having appropriations enacted,” Todd Harrison, the defense budget analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said in an e-mail.

“The authorization bills set policy and imply a certain level and distribution of funding, but they don’t actually provide funding,” he said. “Given the discord in Congress and in the Pentagon over the use” of war funding to supplement the base budget, “it is possible that the appropriations bill could differ significantly.”

Policy Issues

The bill authorizes $300 million for weapons to arm Ukraine’s military in its fight against Russian-backed separatists, a move the Obama administration has resisted taking.

It backs the administration’s request for an additional $600 million to sustain training and equipping of moderate rebels in Syria, and $715 million for training and equipment in Iraq.

The bill would require the administration to submit a plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and then provide for Congress to vote on that proposal. While McCain supports Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo, lawmakers have repeatedly passed provisions barring the administration from doing so.

In keeping with provisions in the House bill, H.R. 1735, Senate Armed Services Committee members would also authorize $1.2 billion for 12 additional F/A-18E/F fighters that would be made at Boeing’s plant in St. Louis.

The bill would add $1.1 billion in upgrades for existing F/A-18s and E/A-18G Growlers.

Under a category labeled “excessive and unnecessary spending,” the committee would cut more than $3 billion in spending proposed by the Pentagon. That includes following the lead of House committee members and reducing $460 million from research on the Air Force’s long-range strike bomber. The senators also would cut $200 million from development of Boeing’s KC-46 tanker and $200 million from Lockheed’s GPS III satellite program.