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HASC saves tanks, keeps F-35Bs

The House Armed Services Committee voted on Wednesday to add $425 million to next year's budget so the Army can keep open its production of M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, on the theory that keeping the line going will ultimately be cheaper than idling for three years, as the Army now plans. "These production lines can't be turned on and off like a light switch," said Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the Republican chairman of the HASC's air and land forces subcommittee.

The proposed three-year shutdown would force contractor General Dynamics to lay off too many skilled workers, and could force its small suppliers out of business, opponents say, which would raise the price tag on everything when the Army wanted to resume production. The Army's current plans call for idling its tank factory from 2013 to 2016, then beginning a major recapitalization program for the M1 fleet. Bartlett's measure would provide funding to keep the line "warm."

The full committee on Wednesday also rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, that would have cut next year's planned buy of F-35B Lightning IIs from six to four, and used the savings of about $380 million to fund Navy operations and maintenance and equipment for the National Guard. Cooper presented his measure as a good compromise -- the Marines would still get their jets, other worthy recipients would get a shot in the arm, and it "would send a message ... that we need to get this program back on track."

HASC chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican, warned that cutting the two F-35Bs could raise the unit costs of the remaining four aircraft, and that deleting them could also worsen the Navy and Marines' oft-projected, seldom understood "strike fighter gap," a point in the future when service officials have said they won't have enough aircraft. [More on this in a moment.] The Armed Service's Committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, pointed out that the cost for the F-35 keeps going up no matter what, and that he got estimates "yesterday" that the costs per fighter were expected to go up again, although he said he couldn't remember for which model. Smith compared the F-35 to the Army's benighted Future Combat Systems: "A program that wasn't ready," and yet one that kept getting funded each year, only to end up canceled. Smith urged the committee to support Cooper's measure axing two jets.

It didn't. By a voice vote, the HASC lawmakers rejected Cooper's bid to delete two F-35Bs, and the committee will refer the bill with six jets for the Marines to the full House.

Here's something else that members added to the bill: A provision offered by Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican who chairs the HASC's seapower subcommittee, that would restrict funding for the Navy's service-life extension program for its F/A-18 Hornets until the Navy "provides a current report regarding the program and the current strike fighter shortfall." As mentioned, the Navy's "fighter gap" has been an issue on Capitol Hill for years -- service officials have said their Super Hornets are wearing out too quickly, and the F-35C will arrive too late, creating a donut hole during which the Navy won't have enough jets to fly off its carriers. How many does it need? When will it need them? Depends on who you ask, what day of the week it is, and what the person you're asking had for breakfast.

Akin's mandate for a Navy report on the fighter gap could at least provide a new set of numbers for this issue, and it wouldn't be surprising if he and other Boeing advocates use the issue to argue on behalf of the Navy buying more new Super Hornets. Boeing has sold Congress and the Navy on new batches of jets for years, and Akin has said he'd like to see a new multi-year contract for more Super Hornets as a way to help address the "fighter gap." So Wednesday's House hearing may serve as a prelude for more discussions on that.

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