The Senate on Monday kicked off debate of the 2017 defense authorization bill, beginning an amendment process that could have wide-reaching implications for the defense industry.

More than 300 amendments have been filed on topics ranging from military bands to the Pentagon’s prototyping programs. Of most interest to the defense industrial base is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) amendment, which would append about $18 billion in wartime funding to beef up procurement, operations and maintenance and force strength.

The amendment would add another Littoral Combat Ship, 14 more F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft, nine more F-35 aircraft, dozens of Army helicopters, tactical wheeled vehicle upgrades and other modernization needs (Defense Daily, May 26).

US_Capitol_Building_at_night_Jan_2006While the amendment is likely to receive Republican support, Democrats have said that any boost to defense spending must be met by equal increases for other discretionary spending in the budget.

Proposing increases to defense without similar ones for nondefense spending “seems to run counter to the central tenets of all the previous budget negotiations,” Jack Reed (D-R.I.), SASC’s top Democrat, said on the Senate floor today.

Senators on Monday started debate of an amendment offered by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) concerning military health care reforms. Senate leaders have not disclosed how many and which ones it will be considering following that.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) wants to undo a number of provisions in the defense authorization bill that would restrict funding for key programs like the Ford-class carrier or B-21 bomber, should the Defense Department not meet certain requirements.  All of his seven amendments—which probably would be firmly opposed by McCain, should they make it to the floor—would either strike language in the NDAA meant to increase oversight or eliminate restrictions on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) use of Russian rocket engines.

Two Cochran amendments likely to raise McCain’s ire relate to space launch. McCain has opposed ULA’s use of the Russian-made RD-180 for its Atlas V launch vehicle, but Pentagon officials have said that buying engines from Russia is necessary to maintain competition between ULA and SpaceX until a domestic alternative is found. Last year, appropriators basically overrode SASC language in the authorization bill that would impose limits on RD-180 procurement.

This year, McCain tried again to prohibit RD-180 procurement in SASC’s version of the authorization bill, but Cochran’s amendment would strip away that language. A second amendment would strike a section of the NDAA stipulating that up to 50 percent of research, development test and evaluation funds for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program could be used to meet U.S. requirements related to “assured access to space.”

Cochran also took steps to protect programs that would be affected by statutory limitations imposed by SASC in the 2017 bill.

One of his amendments would knock down a provision fencing off all but 25 percent of funding for Ford-class carriers CVN-79 and CVN-80 until the Navy meets reporting requirements. The report—which would explore alternatives to the Ford-class carrier as well as potential ways to decrease cost through “descoping” requirements—would still be required, but funding would not be withheld until its delivery.

A separate amendment would similarly strip out funding restrictions related to the new aircraft carrier’s Advanced Arresting Gear.

For one of the Air Force’s top acquisition priorities, the B-21 long range strike bomber, Cochran would remove a provision that would penalize cost increases. The SASC bill includes language stipulating that the difference between the bomber’s cost estimate, as agreed to by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation director, and the contract price will be directed to the Rapid Prototyping Fund.

The appropriations chairman’s amendment would let stand other oversight provisions related to the B-21 that would force the Air Force to disclose to Congress if contracted costs grow by more than 15 percent and require a reassessment of the program if costs balloon by 25 percent or more.