- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Armed with a bolstered new budget, the Pentagon now faces the dual mission of patching up current problems while preparing to fight the wars of the future.

The $1.3 trillion budget blueprint signed by President Trump on Friday sets aside pending billions of dollars on next-generation weapons such as the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Ohio-class submarine, while ensuring the Pentagon can fund cash-starved training and operations accounts. Shortfalls in those operations accounts have been blamed for a slew of embarrassing recent fatal training incidents.

Funding for defense accounts finally affords the Pentagon the fiscal stability to make some longer-term plans, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told reporters Tuesday.

It was that much-needed investment into the U.S. military that prompted Mr. Trump to drop plans to veto the omnibus spending bill, despite the administration’s concerns the legislation lacked necessary funds for a range of White House priorities, including the border wall with Mexico.

“For the last eight years, deep defense cuts have undermined our national security. If you look at what’s taken out, they hollowed our readiness as a military unit and put America at really grave risk,” Mr. Trump told reporters before reluctantly signing the spending plan into law last week.

By contrast, Mr. Mattis pointed to the strong margins for passage on Capitol Hill as a gauge of political support for the military.

“We have the best budget predictability we’ve had in a dozen years with the two years of congressional intent,” Mr. Mattis said. “It was passed with bipartisan support, showing the defense of this country is a nonpartisan issue.”

On the procurement side, the Navy and Marine Corps were the biggest winners, securing $49.1 billion to revamp the sea service’s aging fleet of warships, helicopters and fighter jets. The Air Force received $46.3 billion for weapons and equipment this fiscal year, while congressional lawmakers set aside $12.9 billion total for the largest service branch, the U.S. Army. Soldiers are engaged in active combat operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Just over $10 billion were earmarked for the Navy’s high-profile Ohio and Virginia-class submarine programs. The Navy and Air Force received a combined $38.4 billion for advanced jet fighters and other combat aircraft. A majority of those funds will likely be funneled into the multi-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The so-called F-35 Lighting II is the most expensive weapons development programs in U.S. history. The Trump White House has strongly supported the stealth capabilities and other envelope-pushing attributes of the fifth-generation fighter, despite lengthy, expensive production delays in developing the fighter. Despite vehement protests from North Korea, the Pentagon has deployed a handful of the jets to the Pacific as part of upcoming bilateral military drills with South Korea.

Aside from bolstering the U.S. military’s arsenals, lawmakers also pumped a total of $130 billion into the services’ operations, maintenance and training accounts.

The Navy, which suffered a string of high-profile accidents and collisions at sea last year, received the bulk of the total increase, getting $45.3 billion for operations and training. Navy officials and critical lawmakers said maintenance shortfalls and a high operational tempo in the Pacific region contributed to at-sea collisions resulting in the deaths of nearly 20 U.S. sailors with Seventh Fleet last summer.

Vice Adm. Thomas S. Rowden, the Navy officer in charge of the sea service’s Pacific combat fleet, in January was forced into early retirement in the wake of the incidents, which prompted a worldwide 48-hour stand-down of all Navy operations. The commanders of both the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald, the vessels involved in two major accidents, also face charges of negligent homicide and other criminal violations of military law.

The lack of funding for the service’s operations and maintenance accounts drew the special attention of top House Republicans. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry cited the increased funding as part of a last-minute lobbying effort to get Mr. Trump to sign the final budget package Friday.

Recounting a constituent call from the mother of a U.S. servicemember pleading with Congress to “ground all the planes until you know for certain that they’re safe for my grandson to fly in,” Mr. Thornberry said the spending bill ensures such incidents will be addressed.

The omnibus package “turns the corner in fixing our planes and ships and readiness,” the Texas Republican said in a statement. “And it also sends a very strong message to allies and adversaries alike that the United States is going to stand up and defend ourselves. I think it’s the most important thing in this bill.”

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