Blimp program, Russian engines targeted in defense policy bill


The House Armed Services Committee on Monday released the full version of its annual defense policy bill, filling in the final details before the committee meets later this week to mark up the bill.

In addition to previously released details on total spending, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, troop levels and other aspects, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act would require a strategy for defense interests in Africa, try to force the Air Force to stop using Russian rocket engines and effectively grounds a controversial blimp program.

“The NDAA makes a clear statement to friends and adversaries that the United States will have the means to defend itself, and it reassures the men and women who serve our nation that whatever they are asked to do, they will be prepared and supported fully,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, said in a written statement.

The $610 billion, 758-page bill would fund base requirements at $574 billion. The base funding uses $23 billion from a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund.

The bill would only authorize the use of the remaining OCO fund — $36 billion — until April 30, 2017. That means the next president would have request more funding or make adjustments to war plans.

The bill seeks to encourage the development of an American-made engine, as opposed to a Russian-made one, for space launches by placing restrictions on how funding can be used.

“Assured access to space is a national security priority,” a summary of the bill reads. “The committee shares the concern of many members that reliance on Russian-designed rocket engines is no longer acceptable.”

Funds to develop or procure a launch vehicle, an upper stage or a strap-on motor, as the Air Force had planned, would be prohibited. Instead, a new engine to replace the Russian-made ones would be prioritized.

The bill would also require the Pentagon to submit a strategy on Africa to Congress no later than a year after the measure passes.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has gained footholds on the continent in countries such as Libya. In addition to ISIS, the committee is concerned about Boko Haram, al Qaeda and al-Shabaab, according to a summary included with the bill.

“Additionally, the committee is concerned that insufficient coordination between geographic combatant commands may hinder the unity of effort necessary to counter threats that cross combatant command boundaries,” the summary reads.

The NDAA would also place conditions on the retirement of the A-10 Warthog attack jet, which is widely used in the Middle East. The Pentagon’s budget request called for retiring the A-10 in 2020. The Air Force has been trying to retire the jet for years but has been blocked by lawmakers.

Under the bill, the Air Force would need to maintain at least 171 A-10s. The service would also not be able to prepare to retire any A-10 until 90 days after it submits a report to Congress on the F-35, which is an option to replace the A-10.

The bill would also slash the funding authorized for a controversial blimp program that lawmakers have labeled a boondoggle.

The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, which caught the public’s attention last year when one blimp detached from its mooring in Maryland and floated to Pennsylvania, would get just $2.5 million.

The Pentagon had requested $45 million. The program, in the midst of a three-year trial, includes two blimps that float 10,000 feet in the air and carry powerful radars to detect airborne threats. 

“I commend the chairman for defunding JLENS as I have urged the committee repeatedly,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said in a written statement. “This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to kill this ‘zombie program’ — let’s hope it stays dead this time.”

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