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Congress looks to wrap up budget bills

Dec. 16, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By KATE BRANNEN   |   Comments
The Capitol dome is seen silhouetted against the rising sun in Washington.
The Capitol dome is seen silhouetted against the rising sun in Washington. (Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)

Pentagon planners and budgeteers can rest a bit easier going into the holidays.

After a long year that included a handful of self-made crises and government-shutdown threats, Congress has managed to complete its most fundamental task: It has passed a budget for 2012.

The House passed a $1 trillion-plus 2012 omnibus spending measure, including $531 billion for the Pentagon's base budget, on Dec. 16. At press time, the Senate was poised to pass the bill the next day.

Congress also completed the 2012 defense authorization bill, which, among other measures, will add the head of the National Guard Bureau to the Joint Chiefs of Staff if the president signs the bill, as expected.

Fiscal 2012 actually began Oct. 1, so the omnibus appropriations bill is tardy. But it's arriving far earlier than the 2011 edition, which arrived only in April after a long slog of continuing resolutions that threw plans into disarray and delayed new starts for months.

The December arrival of this year's spending bill will bring relief to Defense Department and industry planners alike.

One of the reasons the bill was able to pass relatively easily was that top-line spending levels were mostly hashed out in August as part of the Budget Control Act. To meet that law's spending caps, lawmakers shaved money off several programs instead of axing big programs. The explanations for these small cuts range from cost growth to schedule delays.

In total, the appropriations bill provides the Defense Department with $518 billion for its base budget, plus $13 billion for military construction, for a total of $531 billion.

In addition, the bill includes $115 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), $2.8 billion below the president's request and $43 billion below last year. The end of U.S. military operations in Iraq contributed to the OCO drop.

Lawmakers approved $163 billion for operations and maintenance, $2.5 billion below current enacted levels.

For research and development, the bill contains $72 billion, $2.5 billion below last year's level.

In procurement, the base budget includes a total of $105 billion, $2.5 billion above last year and $9.8 billion below the Pentagon's request.

The appropriations bill also includes a 1.6 percent pay raise for the military as requested by the president.

Congress Cuts One F-35A

In all, lawmakers trimmed $346 million from the Pentagon's mammoth $9.4 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter procurement and research-and-development budget request. The Lockheed Martin-built jets in the 2012 budget are part of the sixth batch of early production aircraft.

The bill funds 18 F-35s for the U.S. Air Force, seven for the Navy and six for the Marine Corps.

Conferees cut $151 million for one Air Force F-35; however, they added $100 million to fix problems found during testing.

Because the Pentagon is buying and developing the aircraft at the same time a practice called concurrency it has had to go back and fix early production jets as problems emerge during testing.

"The conferees recognize that, for a variety of reasons, the Joint Strike Fighter program is burdened with what could be the highest level of concurrency ever seen in an acquisition program," the report states. "Therefore, the conferees direct the secretary of defense to provide a semi-annual report to the congressional defense committees that shows the actual concurrency costs for the Joint Strike Fighter program."

Meanwhile, the separate authorization bill requires the Pentagon to award fixed-price contracts for the sixth and all remaining initial production lots of the F-35.

Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., expressed their dismay last week that the Pentagon had not used such a contract on its fifth buy of the aircraft, which it awarded earlier this month.

The authorization bill also approves the transfer of the British F-35B short-takeoff, vertical landing jets for carrier versions. Since purchasing the jump jets, London has decided to only operate the carrier version.

The bill also limits the use of F-35 research and development funds until DoD develops a competitive sustainment plan.

Funding Restored for JLTV

After Senate appropriators recommended canceling the Army and Marine Corps' Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program, the final appropriations bill includes $244 million for it.

According to the conference report accompanying the legislation, the JLTV program has undergone "significant changes" since the submission of DoD's fiscal 2012 budget request. Since then, the two services decided their approach was unaffordable and are pursuing "a competitively-selected single vehicle with a less complex design on a significantly accelerated time line.

"The conferees strongly encourage the Army and Marine Corps, in conjunction with the Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics), to examine the feasibility of accelerating a competition for production through more efficient testing and acquisition practices, and by embracing off-the-shelf technology demonstrated by industry, so that improved vehicles are delivered to the warfighter as soon as possible," the report reads.

Appropriators also provided an additional $255 million to buy 42 more M1 Abrams tanks. This keeps the General Dynamics Land Systems' production line open in Ohio, going against the Army's plans to temporarily shut it down.

The final spending bill cuts $435 million from the Pentagon's $884 million request for the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle, providing a total of $449 million.

In the conference report, there is $300 million provided for "Future Combat Systems (FCS) System of Systems Engineering and Program Management," the Army's $159 billion program canceled by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The report explains this money is really going toward the Army's Network Integration Evaluation, the service's new effort to rapidly test electronic network gear before fielding it.

"The conferees note that the continued use of the former ‘Future Combat Systems' terminology has become a counter-productive distraction and recommend updating program descriptions to improve communications among those who review and shape defense appropriations, and to more accurately reflect the purpose for which appropriations are requested," the report says.

Lawmakers used the appropriations bill to express their concerns about the Army's overall modernization strategy, noting that six of the Army's top 10 programs had undergone major restructuring since the budget was submitted in February.

"This magnitude of change in funding across a multitude of programs, identified after submitting the budget only 10 months prior, indicates a pervasive instability in Army programs," the report says.

Lawmakers urge the Army secretary to examine the requirements process in addition to taking other steps to reform acquisition.

Navy and Marine Corps Programs

In the appropriations bill, there was little change to Navy ship construction programs.

The separate authorization bill requires the Navy to submit budget requests for each of three types of mission modules for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) surface warfare, mine countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare as separate, dedicated procurement line items. It also requires a life-cycle, cost-benefit analysis of the LCS, comparing alternative maintenance and sustainability plans.

Pending a report, the policy bill places a limit on funding availability for the Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle (AAV). The report is to include the distance to shore needed to begin an amphibious assault, the speed at which the vehicle needs to travel, and armor requirements.

An analysis of alternatives is also ordered for the new AAV, including potential upgrades of existing AAV-7A1 vehicles, the now-canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle or a new AAV.

The policy bill approves the transfer of the high-speed ferries Huakai and Alakai from the Maritime Administration to the Navy, and allows for the disposal of the decommissioned aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.

Lawmakers also approved the administration's $15 million request for road upgrades at Mayport, Fla., the start of construction to upgrade the port to take a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier beginning in 2019.

The authorization bill restores the requirement for an annual 30-year ship construction plan, along with estimated levels of annual funding.

Christopher P. Cavas and mweisgerber@federaltimes.com?subject=Reader Question">Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.

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