Senate passes $631B defense bill

The Senate gives most major defense weapons programs a pass as it tries to speed through defense budget ahead of the fiscal cliff negotiations.

The Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to spend $631 billion in 2013 on the defense to include the Pentagon’s base budget and war funding.

Senators sped through defense budget amendments in hopes of passing the bill ahead of the more contentious forthcoming debates on taxes and entitlement programs as the country inches closer to the fiscal cliff. With those debates in mind, many defense analysts worried the Pentagon could serve as a sacrificial lamb and find itself absorbing deeper cuts.

Pentagon leaders will see the recent record breaking growth in defense spending halted, but it will not see the same precipitous drop in military spending that has occurred in past downturns. Of course, the threat of sequestration and the $500 billion budget cuts that go with it still looms over the military. The Pentagon’s budget could also still get dragged into the negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff.

For the most part, the military’s largest weapons programs did not take substantial cuts to include the Pentagon’s biggest program, the Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force will receive $3.7 billion and the Navy will receive $3.2 billion to fund their respective portions of the F-35 program.

One Air Force program that did receive a nick was the tanker program. The Pentagon proposed the Air Force receive $1.9 billion, but the Senate only green-lighted $87 million toward the KC-46 program. Air Force leaders continue to nervously watch the sequestration negotiations as they know their fixed-price tanker contract could evaporate if sequester cuts are executed.

Army leadership can breathe easier as their top modernization program, the Ground Combat Vehicle, received its requested $639 million. It also received $318 million to buy 58 Strykers. The Army’s exhausted UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter fleet will also receive a boost with the Senate approving $1.3 billion to buy more Black Hawks.

The Senate did approve most of the funding requests offered by the Navy to include the $778 million on attack submarines, however, the Senate did include provisions on funding for the Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Littoral Combat Ship programs. Navy leaders faced intense scrutiny during budget hearings over both programs.

Senate leaders did issue a message to the Pentagon on the high profile missile defense program, the Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS. The Senate denied the $400.8 million requested for the program that Army leaders have already decided to kill after next year.

Army officials had requested the money in hopes of harvesting certain technologies from the program. The Obama administration also did not want to fail to fund an international program they had committed to with Germany and Italy. This is certainly not the first time the House or Senate has worked to yank funding from the much politically unpopular MEADS program, but funding has repeatedly been approved in the last moments to keep the program alive.

The decisions on defense by the Senate is not the last word on the 2013 defense budget. A House-Senate conference committee will work out the differences between the Senate’s and House’s versions of the defense bill before it’s presented to the president. Work has begun to get those negotiations started.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill once it arrives on his desk after Congress inserted legislation preventing the Defense Department from transferring detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the United States.