A Senate panel wants to slash funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and kill a new combat vehicle effort as part of $26 billion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget request.

The Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee’s (SAC-D) fiscal year 2012 defense appropriations bill has a price tag of $513 billion, or $526 billion when military-construction funding is included. Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) during a bill-writing markup session yesterday detailed several cuts to the Pentagon spending plan President Barack Obama requested in February, which was crafted before Congress and the White House agreed to a multi-billion dollar deficit-cutting law.

“While some of the cuts will be considered tough, we believe they are not only fair but prudent, and represent an important step in improving the (Defense) Department’s fiscal accountability in this difficult budget environment,” Inouye said. The full Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) will weigh the bill tomorrow, when amendments could be offered.

Cuts in the bill include a $695 million reduction to Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Inouye said the funding dip would quash the Pentagon’s request to ramp up production of aircraft in FY ’12 and FY ’13, and instead would maintain production at the current FY ’11 levels for two more years “in order to limit out-year cost growth.”

He expressed concern that the restructured aircraft effort still has “excessive concurrency in development and production” and the test program is only 10 percent complete.

“For each aircraft we build this early in the test program, we will have to pay many millions in the future to fix the problems that are identified in testing,” he said. He told reporters after the hearing that he does not view his proposal as taking money out of the F-35 effort, but as extending the program “a little longer.” 

Lockheed Martin backer Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) expressed concerns about the F-35 cuts during the markup session, but told reporters afterward she did not plan to try to amend the bill language.

She called for watching the program closely, during the slowdown period proposed by the SAC-D, to ensure costs don’t rise too much because of the proposed drop in aircraft procurement quantities. She told reporters if the program ramps back up as the SAC has proposed, she thinks “everything will work out fine.” Yet she said she is concerned about what would happened if that plan is further modified, and warned costs could rise more.

The SAC-D’s bill makes nearly 600 line-item reductions from the Pentagon’s proposal. Inouye said most of them result from “program terminations, schedule delays, program changes since submission of the budget last February, inadequate justification, unaffordable future year costs, or corrections to poor fiscal discipline.”

The legislation notably calls for killing the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program because of “excessive cost growth and constantly changing requirements.” The Army and Marine Corps have been working with industry to develop the vehicle as a replacement to the Humvee, though some lawmakers have been pushing to spend more monies on improving Humvees.

“The committee believes that alternatives exist today to meet the Army and Marine Corps’ requirements to recapitalize and competitively upgrade the Humvee fleet, and supports funding for those programs,” Inouye said.

The SAC-D legislation calls for boosting the Pentagon’s requested funding for some vehicles, including adding $240 million for M1 Abrams tank upgrades and $250 million for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle survivability enhancements.

Also, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) pointed out during the markup that the bill does not support work DARPA has done to help Humvees better deflect blasts, spurring Inouye to say he and SAC Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) would talk to him about the effort.

In the realm of Navy shipbuilding, the SAC-D’s bill rejects the Pentagon’s request for an additional Mobile Landing Platform (MLP). Inouye noted Congress funded the ship in the FY ’11 appropriations bill, and said his panel still supports the program and expects the Navy to seek a third MLP in FY ’13.

The SAC-D’s proposal for the base defense budget is $513 billion, or $26 billion below the $539 billion Pentagon request. When military-construction funding is factored in, the SAC-D’s total is $526 billion, or $27 billion less than the Pentagon’s $553 billion request for the Pentagon and military construction.

Inouye said the Pentagon has identified $10 billion in funds it no longer wants in FY ’12, including $5 billion for troops in Afghanistan and $135 million for the aerial-refueling tanker program that the Air Force said it cannot spend in FY ’12.

The SAC-D is the first panel to officially unveil a proposal for the Pentagon’s FY ’12 budget since Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 on Aug. 2.

The White House said the law cuts $350 billion in defense-related spending over the next decade. Also, the act calls for the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to find up to $1. 5 trillion in additional long-term government savings by Nov. 23. If it can’t craft a plan that passes the full Congress by Dec. 23, automatic longterm cuts of $1.2 trillion would kick in starting in 2013, with half coming from the Pentagon budget. The 12-member congressional panel held its first hearing yesterday.

The House passed a defense appropriations bill in July that would trim the Pentagon’s FY ’12 proposal by $9 billion, after approving a policy-setting defense authorization bill in May that would not cut the request. The Senate Armed Services Committee also has crafted a FY ’12 defense authorization bill with a $5.9 billion reduction to the Pentagon’s proposal, though the full Senate has not weighed the legislation yet.

FY ’12 begins Oct. 1.  Multiple lawmakers and congressional aides said they expect the Pentagon budget to be covered at the beginning of the fiscal year through a short-term continuing resolution. The legislation would maintain funding at FY ’11 levels until the final defense appropriations bill is approved by the Senate, reconciled with the House-passed version, and signed by the president.