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Senators follow Obama plans to cut weapons systems

September 9, 2009 11:03:49 AM PDT
President Barack Obama's demands to kill off a super-expensive, ultramodern fighter and the way-over-budget, behind-schedule presidential helicopter drew a sympathetic hearing from a Senate panel Wednesday. The F-22 is a next-generation fighter aimed at maintaining U.S. dominance in air combat, but is poorly suited for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VH-71 is the high-security replacement for the aging fleet of presidential helicopters.

By a unanimous vote, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense approved $636 billion for the Pentagon for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. That total includes $128 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would bring to $1 trillion-plus the amount of money set aside by Congress for those wars and other terrorism-fighting efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The bill rejects Obama's $100 million request for the Pentagon to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have made clear they want to shut down the $65 billion F-22 program. Gates wants to cut off production after 187 planes.

The committee chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is an F-22 supporter. But he yielded to Obama, who easily prevailed when the Senate voted during debate on a defense policy bill in July to kill the plane.

The helicopter program is six years behind schedule and the estimated cost for a fleet of 28 has doubled to $13 billion. Inouye is siding with Obama against House lawmakers who want to keep the program alive and at least get a few helicopters for the U.S. investment.

But the Senate is breaking with Obama - as did the House - in continuing to fund new C-17 cargo planes, adding $2.5 billion for 10 of them. The planes are assembled in Long Beach, Calif., by the Boeing Co.

Inouye noted that Congress broke with prior administrations efforts to cut off weapons systems such as stealth fighters the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft that can shift from a helicopter into a plane and back again. He said Congress had made the right calls in those cases.

Inouye also went along with administration's effort to kill a program to develop an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's major new weapons system. There's strong political support for the second engine, which is funded by a companion House bill and would be built by the General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. The main F-35 engine is built in Connecticut by Pratt & Whitney.

"While we are not in complete agreement with the judgment of administration officials, we have generally concurred with the recommendations of our current leaders," Inouye said.

The Senate plan also funds the Obama administration's 22,000 increase in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is reportedly considering a further boost in force levels.

The full committee planned to consider the bill Thursday. Senate debate is expected later in the month. Then the bill must be reconciled with a House version.

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