Appropriators slash F-35 purchases in fiscal 2011

The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee quickly approved $680.9 billion in defense spending Tuesday for next year, trimming $8.1 billion from the Pentagon's base budget request and making cuts to some of the military's most high-profile programs.

Perhaps the biggest cut -- and the one that will be most difficult for the Pentagon to swallow -- is the subcommittee's decision to buy only 32 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters next year instead of the 43 in the department's request.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who also chairs the defense panel, offered mild criticism Tuesday of the multiservice fighter, a troubled program that defense officials are working overtime to get on the right track.

In explaining his decision to cut the Lockheed Martin fighters, Inouye said he wanted to "inform my colleagues that the Defense Department has not yet awarded a contract to build the 30 aircraft which the Congress funded nearly a year ago."

For fiscal 2011, the Pentagon is requesting $8.7 billion in procurement funding to buy 43 F-35s, plus $2.3 billion for continued research and development and $535 million for spare parts.

During its markup in late July, the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee approved the 42 F-35s requested in the base budget. But appropriators nixed the one fighter the Pentagon requested as part of its fiscal 2011 war-funding request.

The stealthy F-35, which will replace older fighters in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force fleet, is considered a critical element of the military's aviation plans. Indeed, the White House in May issued a veto threat on the House's version of the defense authorization bill if policy provisions in the final measure "would seriously disrupt the F-35 program," according to a Statement of Administration Policy.

But the Senate panel did avert a veto threat Tuesday by not including funding for an alternate engine for the F-35, which the administration has said is unnecessary and regards as wasteful spending. General Electric and Rolls Royce produce the alternate engine, while Pratt & Whitney is the maker of the plane's primary engine.

House appropriators added $450 million to the defense bill for the unwanted engine, overriding objections from Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

But Inouye has long supported the program and Tuesday left open the possibility of an amendment adding money for the alternate engine during the full committee markup on Thursday.

"I would think so," Inouye said when asked if he expected any appropriators to offer an amendment on the engine.

While the House of Representatives is on record for approving the alternate engine, gaining approval for the program among appropriators or on the Senate floor could be an uphill climb.

The bill also does not include funding for Boeing-built C-17 cargo planes, a program the Pentagon is seeking to end.

Appropriators also agreed Tuesday to cut one of the four Littoral Combat Ships in the Navy's fiscal 2011 request because of delays in issuing a contract award for the shallow-water vessel.

"There is virtually no way that the winning contractor would be able to begin construction of four ships in 2011," Inouye said, adding that the committee made similar reductions in dozens of other programs "where the requested funding level is above what is required to meet adjusted schedules."

Helicopters, however, fared well in the chairman's mark, which includes funding to buy an additional 12 UH-60 Black Hawks and six CH-47 Chinooks for the Army. The bill also provides an additional $121 million for 13 Standard Missile-3 Block IA interceptors and adds $40 million in the Operationally Responsive Space program for responsive launch capabilities.

The bill also includes $595 million above the request for defense health programs and funds a 1.4 percent military pay raise.

The subcommittee decided to fully fund the war-spending portion of the budget request, which totaled $157.7 billion. But the subcommittee did cut some accounts to pay for higher priorities within the war-spending package.

The bill cuts in half the $2 billion request for the Iraq Security Forces Fund, a move that will probably draw criticism from Republicans. The bill also includes $900 million for the Commander's Emergency Response Fund, which is $400 million below the request.

Increases to war-related accounts include an additional $210 million to address Navy shortfalls in aviation spare parts and funding to buy an MH-60 Black Hawk and one CH-47 Chinook to replace combat losses.

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