The House and Senate armed services committees came to an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2016, releasing a $604.2-billion authorization plan after months of hashing out nearly 900 discrepancies between the bills.
The bill maintained the support that both committees had for six additional F-35B Joint Strike Fighters for the Marine Corps, to give them 15 total in FY 2016; funding for 12 additional F/A-18E-F Super Hornets for the Navy, though at a lower cost than first predicted due to contract savings; and 49 additional Tomahawk missiles, for 149 total, to bring manufacturer Raytheon up to the minimum sustaining production rate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to the House Armed Services Committee’s plan to add a fourth MQ-4C Triton for $65 million.
The Senate supported a plan to integrate Flight III changes to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers though an engineering change proposal in the middle of the 10-ship block buy. The House had expressed concerns about the integration in its FY 2014 bill, but “having received the required reports, the conferees support the changes proposed by the Secretary of the Navy to integrate the Air and Missile Defense Radar into the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and the addition of these Flight III ships to the current Arleigh Burke-class multiyear procurement contract,” according to a joint explanatory statement from the two committees.
The Navy had originally requested $134.7 million for its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, and while the House bill would have authorized that spending, the Senate had concerns that the Navy would face delays while awaiting the Department of Defense Intelligence Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Strategic Portfolio Review. Instead, the Senate included in a Defense Department-wide research and development fund “$350.0 million for continued development and risk reduction activities of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS–D) aircraft that would benefit the overall UCLASS program, and $375.0 million to be used for a competitive prototyping of at least two follow-on air systems that move the Department toward a UCLASS program capable of long-range strike in a contested environment,” according to the joint statement.
“The conferees believe that the Navy should develop a penetrating, air-refuelable, unmanned carrier-launched aircraft capable of performing a broad range of missions in a non- permissive environment. The conferees believe that such an aircraft should be designed for full integration into carrier air wing operations—including strike operations—and possess the range, payload, and survivability attributes as necessary to complement such integration,” according to the statement.
“Although the Defense Department could develop land-based unmanned aircraft with attributes to support the air wing, the conferees believe that the United States would derive substantial strategic and operational benefits from operating such aircraft from a mobile seabase that is self-deployable and not subject to the caveats of a host nation.”
The document goes on to state the committees agreed on the $350 million for UCLASS, and though the $375 million for competitive prototyping did not make it into the bill, language directs the Navy to apply some of the $305-million plus-up towards prototyping.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee, praised the funding increase in a statement Tuesday, saying that “as access-denied environments proliferate, the Carrier Air Wing of the future must contain a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of striking in contested airspace. Integrating an unmanned aircraft fully into the Air Wing must be a priority in the years ahead.”
The two committees also chided the Navy for insufficiently funding its cruisers in the department’s original budget submission. The joint statement notes that “the Navy has not programmed the manpower and operations funding for the remaining seven cruisers in the future years defense program (FYDP) beyond fiscal year 2016. The conferees also understand that the FYDP does not support the long-term plan for modernization of these cruisers and dock landing ships beyond fiscal year 2018. This is at odds with statements by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus that he is ‘100-percent’ committed to ensuring the ships are modernized and returned back to sea and similar statements by other administration officials.
“The lack of fiscal support in the fiscal year 2016 FYDP and previous requests for the early retirement of some of these cruisers has led the conferees to question the administration’s resolve to retain all of these cruisers through the end of their service lives. In order to demonstrate the administration’s commitment to the plan, it is incumbent on the administration to close this gap in force structure statements and fiscal decisions. Continued conferee acceptance of the Navy’s plan will be predicated on the administration’s decision to fully program across the FYDP for manpower, readiness, and modernization for all cruisers and dock landing ships.”
Despite the agreement on Navy issues, it is unclear if the bill will pass. It maintains the level of spending the Pentagon requested, which is higher than current spending caps allow, by moving some operations and maintenance spending into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. Only one Democrat on the HASC and two on SASC signed off on the agreement, and the White House is expected to oppose the bill. HASC and SASC staffers told reporters Tuesday afternoon that they had not begun working on a backup plan in case the NDAA is vetoed but rather were focused on trying to get the bill passed out of Congress.