Afghanistan aircraft win big in budget deal

Defense firms that build the helicopters and unmanned aircraft needed in Afghanistan were once again big winners in the budget sweepstakes.


Driven almost exclusively by battlefield needs in Afghanistan, the budget devotes billions to accelerate production of Army and Air Force helicopters, which should help firms such as Boeing, Sikorsky and Bell Helicopter.

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Lawmakers and the White House have agreed to slash the Pentagon’s 2011 budget by nearly $20 billion, the first substantial cut in years, as part of a compromise that funds the government through September.

Congressional appropriators unveiled details of their compromise defense budget early Tuesday morning, revealing a measure that will give the Pentagon a $513 billion base budget and $157 billion in emergency funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The former figure is $18 billion less than the Obama administration requested, while the latter is right on target. 

Several lawmakers told The Hill recently that $513 billion was about all that could be secured for the Pentagon’s base budget as Washington tackles the deficit.

“That’s probably the top line for this year,” House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said Thursday during a brief interview. “In this budget environment, getting more … is going to be a tough go.”

But some Republicans feel otherwise. One is Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn of Texas, who said in an interview: “We can’t cut our effectiveness or impair our national security.”

Cornyn said the right model to follow is Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s efficiencies effort, under which DOD and administration officials shifted $178 billion from unneeded and redundant items to higher-priority hardware programs and deficit-reduction efforts.

“I would have confidence in Gates’s recommendation and his approach to cut things we don’t need and keep things we do need while not cashing in the peace dividend while still engaged in three wars,” Cornyn said.

In their 2011 budget plans, the Army sought funds for several types of helicopters, including Sikorsky-made Blackhawks, Boeing-made Apaches, Boeing-made CH-47 Chinooks and other models. The appropriators’ summary points out the inclusion of funds for one new Army National Guard battalion that will operate Boeing’s Apaches.

The Air Force’s biggest helicopter line in its request is for a variant of the V-22 tiltrotor made by Bell Helicopter and Boeing.

The budget documents released by the House and Senate panels Tuesday contained mostly broad category funding levels, such as nearly $5.3 billion for Army aircraft procurement and $13 billion for Air Force aircraft. 

The documents did reveal the defense spending measure includes funds for 48 MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft, giving a boost to General Atomics, which makes that model.

Military personnel were also among the winners as another defense budget cycle closed, with lawmakers fully funding a 1.4 percent pay hike and adding $670 million to the administration’s request to cover personnel account shortfalls.

Defense advisory panels and independent think tanks have for several years been sounding alarms about DOD’s growing personnel costs, with senior Pentagon brass recently warning changes are needed. Without reform, the Pentagon will have to raid its hardware investment accounts to offset these rising people costs, officials say.

The largest Pentagon weapons program in history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, did not escape unscathed in the budget.

The Defense Department requested nearly $4 billion for the F-35 program, according to 2011 Pentagon budget documents. Appropriators cut nearly $2.2 billion from that request “due to production and testing delays,” states the House-Senate summary.

What’s more, on Monday evening, The Hill learned congressional appropriators opted against including funding for a second F-35 engine.

The Pentagon has said it costs too much and is not operationally required; F136 engine proponents, including manufacturers Rolls-Royce and GE, say it will save billions in the long run and provide a Plan B if the primary power plant fleet has to be grounded.

On Tuesday, in an email to reporters, Rolls and GE vowed to fight on.

“There is a significant willingness in Congress to revisit the F136 funding debate as the consequences of terminating the F136 engine are being fully understood,” GE spokesman Rick Kennedy wrote. “Senate and House leaders from both parties are strongly encouraging us to continue the fight for acquisition reform through competition in the [2012] defense bill.”

The Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) — for years a recipient of congressional skepticism and criticism — was another target for cuts. Appropriators cut $672 million from the Pentagon’s $3.5 billion JIEDDO request, according to the summary, citing “revised requirements.”