Appropriators cut $695 million from fighter jet, cancel tactical vehicle

Panel chairman assures colleagues that the bill covers the military’s most pressing needs despite belt-tightening measures.

The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday approved a defense spending bill for next year that cuts $26 billion from the Pentagon's $656.8 billion request, including trimming $695 million from the Joint Strike Fighter program and cancelling the troubled Joint Light Tactical Vehicle in development for the Army and Marine Corps.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who chairs the defense panel and the full committee, assured his colleagues that the bill covers the military's most pressing needs despite the sizeable cut, which was mandated in the Budget Control Act lawmakers approved last month.

"This recommendation takes care of our men and women in uniform and their families," Inouye said during the brief markup. "It fully supports military readiness, protects the forces and maintains our technological edge."

The cut to the $9.7 billion request for the Joint Strike Fighter, the largest single program on the Pentagon's books, comes as the Lockheed Martin jet's backers on Capitol Hill launch a public campaign to protect it from sharp reductions.

During Tuesday's markup, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she was concerned that the reduction would ultimately drive up the price tag of the aircraft because it slows down production rates. Lockheed assembles the aircraft at its Ft. Worth, Texas, plant. But Hutchison said she would not oppose the bill.

Inouye said he supports the F-35 and believes the program officials have made progress correcting cost and schedule problems with the fighter over the last year. But he is recommending freezing production rates at this year's levels for 2012 and 2013 to allow more time for officials to get the program on track. The goal, he suggested, is to reduce costs by stabilizing the program before the Pentagon ramps up its buys.

"The test program is only 10 percent complete, yet the request continues to ramp up production of aircraft in fiscal years 2012 and 2013," he said. "For each aircraft we build this early in the test program, we will have to pay many millions in the future to fix the problems that are identified in testing."

Inouye said he canceled Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which would ultimately replace the ubiquitous Humvee, because costs had increased significantly and the military had constantly changed its requirements. The Pentagon had requested $243.9 billion for the program.

"The committee believes that alternatives exist today to meet the Army and Marine Corps' requirements to recapitalize and competitively upgrade the Humvee fleet, and supports funding for those programs," Inouye said.

In total, the bill includes more than 600 line-item reductions, most of which the committee made because of program terminations, schedule delays, program changes, inadequate justification from the Pentagon, unaffordable costs or "corrections to poor fiscal discipline," Inouye said. The budget for the Air Force's new aerial refueling tanker, for instance, was trimmed by $135 million after the Air Force told the committee it could not spend all of the funds requested for the program next year.

The bill fully funds the $117.8 billion requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but did shift some money within those accounts to pay for more pressing needs. Indeed, the panel cut $5 billion because of planned force reductions in Afghanistan and another $1.6 billion requested for Afghanistan's security forces. After the markup, Inouye told reporters that the committee redirects those war funds to equipment and other priorities.

The full appropriations committee will meet Thursday afternoon to mark up the bill.