The Navy may get a boost in readiness through additional military construction to support aviation readiness and shipyard workforce growth, if provisions in the House Armed Services Committee’s 2017 defense bill pass, but the Marine Corps would not get any aviation readiness dollars above what the service requested in its February budget submission.
The HASC released its version of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act this week, and while the funding tables will not be released until next week, readiness subcommittee staffers told reporters on Tuesday that HASC chose to fund military construction – cut in recent years as a bill-payer for acquisition and operations – above the Pentagon’s request. Specifically, a staffer said the Navy would receive additional support beyond the Navy’s request to help build new runways, hangars, training and maintenance facilities and more to support new aircraft – the EA-18G Growlers, F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, MQ-4C Tritons and other unmanned platforms being introduced to the fleet and fielded in numbers.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michelle Howard told the committee earlier this year that the Navy has a $5.6-billion backlog of infrastructure projects, and that backlog only continues to grow. Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, said at the same hearing that the Navy cannot just buy new aircraft and ignore the infrastructure needed to support the planes. Aircraft-related military construction projects were one of the highest-priority items in the service’s budget request this year, he said, only behind overseas projects in places like Guam and Djibouti.
The subcommittee staffer said in previous years military construction funding was prioritized to support combatant commander needs – and Cullom said the Navy prioritized COCOM needs as well in its FY 2017 request – but this year the committee tried to support service needs at home as the Navy grows its fleet of Littoral Combat Ships, Marine Corps fields its F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, and more, all of which need new and unique infrastructure to support training and operating the new platforms.
The Marine Corp, whose aviation readiness appears to be in a more dire situation, will only get the funding it requested under the HASC version of the defense bill, according to a staffer.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee earlier this year that the “CH-53 community is the most challenged” in terms of readiness, but media reports have described severe parts shortages in the Marines’ Hornet fleet as well. Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said at a hearing that Hornet readiness is so low that pilots are struggling to get their required flight hours per month, which could lead to retention problems in the Marine aviation community.
The staffer said the subcommittee is looking to fund not only spare parts but also training to support Marine Corps aviation readiness and work at depots that maintain and modernize aircraft. That funding to recover readiness in the Marine aviation community was funded at the level the service requested, the staffer said.
Also in the readiness subcommittee’s section of the bill, HASC supports the test and evaluation community and the four services’ shipyards, depots and arsenals through additional hiring authorities to address critical personnel needs. A staffer said these organizations will be granted direct hiring authority for two years under the HASC version of the bill, allowing them to waive many steps in the USA Jobs process so qualified personnel can be hired, trained and put to work faster. The Navy is on track in building up its shipyard work force, aiming for 33,500 fulltime-equivalent workers by this fiscal year. But it still faces problems at aviation depots, where service-life extensions on the legacy Hornet fleet have taken longer than anticipated and were complicated by hiring freezes and manpower cuts due to sequestration.
Elsewhere in the HASC’s version of the FY 2017 NDAA, the tactical air and land subcommittee chose to support the F-35 and F/A-18 programs through funding increases over the Pentagon’s request. The subcommittee staffers could not discuss how much additional money or how many aircraft were added beyond the services’ February request – that information will come out in the funding tables next week – but a staffer said the subcommittee tried to include as much of the services’ unfunded requirements list in the bill as possible. The Navy’s unfunded requirements list included $1.5 billion for 14 F/A-18E-F Super Hornets, none of which were included in the formal budget request, and two F-35Cs.
The staffer said the support for the Super Hornet program is meant to keep the Boeing production line open for another year, and that support remains regardless of any international sales.
In its section of the bill, the military personnel subcommittee chose to support higher troop levels than the Pentagon requested, including a 185,000-person Marine Corps instead of the service’s anticipated 182,000, according to a subcommittee staffer. The committee did not change the Navy’s plans for 322,900 sailors.