Senate panel approves F/A-18 purchase, delays Jefferson Barracks action
WASHINGTON – The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a defense bill Thursday that would maintain the production lines of the F-18 in St. Louis, nix a new base-closing round, and block an Air Force plan to shut down air guard units, including one at Jefferson Barracks.
While the Senate defense bill’s $631 billion price tag for fiscal 2013 is about $4 billion less than the House-passed version, the provisions of the two bills with direct impact in Missouri and Illinois appeared to be similar. Those include:
- Purchase of 26 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and 12 EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft for a total of more than $3 billion. Both are made at the Boeing Corp. plant in Hazelwood, where nearly 5,000 workers help support the production lines.
- An additional $60 million (about $15 million more than the House bill) in “advance procurement funds” for the F/A-18 program. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the funds “would go toward filling in the gap on our [aircraft] carriers because the [F-35] Joint Strike Fighter is so far over schedule and, frankly, so far over budget.”
- Despite continued complaints about its cost and development, Lockheed-Martin Corp.’s F-35 program was funded. The full House had defeated an effort to de-fund the Joint Strike Fighter, and the House Armed Services committed watered down an amendment offered by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, to hold up half of the procurement funds for an F-35 variant until the Pentagon provided Congress with a battle-ready date for the aircraft.
- Blocks the Air Force from its planned Air National Guard cuts and, like the House bill, tells the Air Force it “cannot do things like it is trying to do at Jefferson Barracks,” in McCaskill's words, until a commission reports next spring on the impact of such cutbacks. Earlier this year, the Air Force said it intended to eliminate the 121st Air Control Squadron at Jefferson Barracks next year – at a loss of about 200 positions, including more than 40 full-time jobs – as part of a nationwide cutback. That unit had been reactivated in 2010 and was provided last year with more than $40 million worth of new equipment, including a 77-foot-high radar tower.
- Rejects the Pentagon’s request to open a new base-closing (BRAC) round next year. Such a proceeding might have affected the large bases in Missouri and Illinois, such as Scott Air Force Base, Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base.
“There will be no BRAC closures” in the next fiscal year, said McCaskill. “We must wait until we get a full accounting and reporting from the previous BRAC closures” to determine why closing bases sometimes leads to little savings. She and other senators want more scrutiny of shrinking U.S. bases abroad.
In a statement to the Beacon, Boeing said Thursday that the defense budget for the next fiscal year remains “a work in progress, so it is still too early to conclude what it ultimately will mean for Boeing and our customers.”
However, Boeing called the F/A-18 “a model defense program” and added in the statement that “as we monitor the defense budget process, we will continue to deliver on our current multi-year procurement contract for Super Hornets and Growlers.”
Late in 2010, the Navy awarded Boeing a $5.3 billion multi-year procurement contract for 124 Super Hornet and Growler aircraft.
Under its terms, Boeing was scheduled to deliver 66 Super Hornets and 58 Growlers to the Navy from 2012 through 2015. Even so, to keep those purchases on schedule, Congress must continue to appropriate the money to buy the aircraft.
Eventually, the Pentagon wants variants of the radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a program that has been plagued by delays, performance questions and huge cost overruns that Akin says make it “the most expensive acquisition program in history” – to replace the Hornet and two other military aircraft, the F-16 and the A-10.
“I’ve been advocating for a blend of the F/A-18 and the Joint Strike Fighter because the F/A-18 costs half as much and has 80 percent of the capability,” McCaskill said. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also told reporters this week that he questions the cost and development programs of the F-35.
Akin, in an interview with the Beacon last week and in an oped, said he was getting impatient with the problems and costs of the F-35 program, which he said “needs to deliver on the promises it has made or we and our allies will have no choice but to find solutions elsewhere.”
Bill includes McCaskill contracting priorities
McCaskill, who chairs an Armed Services subcommittee on military readiness, said she was “disappointed” that the full committee’s markup session – in which the final bill is amended and approved – was closed to the public. She said she was one of eight senators who voted unsuccessfully to open the markup session.
Even so, McCaskill said she was heartened that the full panel approved provisions passed by her subcommittee, including parts of the Comprehensive Contingency Contracting Reform Act of 2012. The bill, which she jointly sponsored with Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., would implement some of last summer’s recommendations of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the two senators had helped establish in 2007.
“Most of the priorities I had ... made it into the bill,” said McCaskill, adding that provisions of that legislation that made it into the Armed Services bill would:
- Bolster whistleblower protections provided to employees of government contractors who raise the alarm on waste, fraud, and abuse.
- Overhaul aspects of the federal government’s planning, management and oversight of contracting during overseas contingency operations.
- Impose a lower cap on the amount of taxpayer funds paid to executives of companies that contract with the government.
The committee also endorsed a 5 percent reduction, over five years, in civilian personnel and federal contractors and rejected a proposed increase in fees to TRICARE military medical program.
It also declined to endorse House-passed provisions (supported by Akin and most Republicans) that would have authorized an East Coast missile defense program. Instead, the Senate calls on the Pentagon to assess the feasibility of such as site, according to Senate Armed Services chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
This story includes information provided by Jo Mannies of the Beacon staff.