Defense spending blueprint hits home in Hampton Roads

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

Congress has finalized a defense spending blueprint for 2018, and its significance for Hampton Roads comes down to what it says — and doesn’t say — about key issues.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act spells out priorities from the House and Senate armed services committees on everything from troop pay raises to shipbuilding. It’s not the final budget, but it guides congressional budget writers as they divvy up limited funds among many priorities.

It doesn’t authorize everything.

The NDAA takes a pass on supporting another round of military base closings and realignments, which last hit Hampton Roads in 2005.

Military leaders under former President Obama and President Trump have urged approval of what’s commonly known as BRAC, which stands for Base Realignment and Closure commission, but Congress has rebuffed the idea for years.

This year was different because it included a push from within Congress.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of Senate Armed Services, authored a BRAC-like amendment with the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. Instead of convening a full-blown BRAC commission complete with public hearings, it would have required the Defense Department to develop a closure list. It allowed for a public comment period and review by the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency.

However, the measure wasn’t included in the final House-Senate compromise version. Sen. Tim Kaine, an armed services panel member, said the proposal had merit.

“I was generally supportive of the McCain hybrid, which was in the Senate version but didn’t last through conference,” said Kaine Friday, after speaking to members of the Hampton Roads Chamber in Virginia Beach.

Kaine has criticized past BRAC rounds for lack of savings and the propensity for states and cities to arm themselves with lobbyists and “get all worked up” to defend themselves. He favors a more simplified process: Let the military make recommendations on bases that should be closed or downsized, then let Congress debate it along with other military wishes.

“The BRAC process is a lot of trouble that is unnecessary,” he said. “Just let the military make recommendations to us . . . and we’ll battle it out in committee.”

Another measure left on the cutting room floor was authorization for a multi-year deal on purchasing two aircraft carriers. Supporters said the old adage of consumer buying applied here: Bulk buying saves money, even when it comes to nuclear-powered warships.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, had pushed this idea. He chairs the sea power panel on House Armed Services, which gives him sway over shipbuilding issues. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer also voiced strong support as did Huntington Ingalls Industries, the shipyard’s parent company.

Earlier this year, HII ran ads in Beltway markets extolling the cost savings from bulk buying.

Wittman said he was disappointed that the measure wasn’t included.

“It is clear to me that the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense yet again slowed down an initiative that could saved $2.5 billion for the taxpayers,” Wittman said.

The idea could be resurrected during the budget-writing process, Kaine said, so stay tuned.

Support in many areas

Those two issues aside, Wittman and Kaine said the authorization goes a long way to supporting troops and giving them the support and war-fighting tools they need.

Addressing the Hampton Roads Chamber, Kaine said the bill was good for the region.

Even though it passes on a two-carrier purchase, it promotes the Navy’s long-term goal of reaching a 355-ship fleet, up from about 275 now.

“That is going to have a significant impact on the economy of this region,” he said.

It funds work on the next two Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, the John F. Kennedy and the Enterprise, plus the mid-life overhaul of the USS George Washington.

It authorizes an additional $450 million for either an extra Virginia-class submarine or an expansion of the submarine industrial base to prepare for the Navy’s top priority: building a new fleet of nuclear-missile-armed submarines called the Columbia-class.

The Newport News shipyard currently builds Virginia-class subs in a 50-50 work split with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. Electric Boat will handle the bulk of the Columbia-class construction, but Newport News will get about 22 percent of that work.

And because EB will be busy building the larger Columbia-class class boats, the 50-50 split on Virginia-class will begin to tilt more toward Newport News, according to the Navy’s plan.

Overall, it calls for a base budget of $626 billion plus another $66 billion in the overseas war-fighting account. That’s a $26 billion increase over President Trump’s request, Wittman said.

It authorizes increasing troop levels in the Army, Marine Corps, Army Reserve and Army National Guard.

It allows a 2.4 percent pay raise for members of the armed forces and $141.8 billion for various allowances, bonuses, death benefits and permanent change of station moves.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821

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