Defense bill: Funds joint base tankers, protects jobs at Lockheed Martin in Moorestown
The final bill was advanced by a 33-24 vote that featured “yes” votes from all three New Jersey Democrats on the panel: Reps. Donald Norcross, Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill.
Some of New Jersey’s congressional delegation may be new, but protecting and enhancing Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst continues to be a top priority for the state’s lawmakers in Washington.
The commitment to the so-called “megabase” and the tens of thousands of service members and civilians employed there and at New Jersey’s other installations was evident this week as the House Armed Services Committee held its marathon markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual policy measure that authorizes military spending for the upcoming fiscal year and establishes numerous defense policies and actions.
While all 435 House members are expected to vote on the legislation next month, the lion’s share of the work in writing the bill gets done in the Armed Services Committee markup, which kicked off Wednesday morning and concluded just before dawn Thursday. The final bill advanced 33-24 and featured “yes” votes from all three New Jersey Democrats on the panel: Reps. Donald Norcross, Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill.
It was Norcross’ fifth time participating in the lengthy session, but the first where he was involved both as a committee member and chairman of the panel’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee. His fingerprints were on several of the provisions and amendments pertaining to the joint base and other defense facilities in the state and region.
“We live in an uncertain world where there are serious threats to our country and our democracy, and we must ensure our military has the tools and manpower needed to defend our nation,” Norcross, D-1st of Camden, said after the nearly 21-hour session. “We were able to keep our military fully equipped, meet mission requirements and deter potential adversaries, while ensuring the Department of Defense’s programs are fiscally responsible. Overall, I’m proud to have voted to strengthen and modernize our military to build a strong national defense, support service members and their families, and grow our nation’s workforce.”
Kim and Sherrill are freshman lawmakers, so this was their first time through the panel’s cram session, but both entered Congress well-versed in defense policy from previous service. Kim spent years as a civilian adviser in the Pentagon and White House, and Sherrill is a former Navy helicopter pilot and flag officer. Both had pressed Democratic leaders for an assignment to Armed Services knowing it would give them the best opportunity to apply their experience and advocate for service members and the state’s installations.
The markup session provides the best opportunity for rank-and-file members to influence defense policy, and all three New Jersey lawmakers had amendments and language included in the final bill.
Funding tankers and base resilience
Among the most important provisions for the joint base was the authorization for the Air Force to spend $2.2 billion to procure a dozen KC-46 tankers, the state-of-the-art midair refueling jets being built by Boeing to replace the older KC-10s and KC-135s.
Two dozen KC-46s are expected to be stationed at the joint base, and the 12 planned for procurement during the 2020 fiscal year are expected to keep the Air Force on schedule to deliver the first ones in 2021.
The bill also includes language specifying that preparations for a new round of base closures are not authorized.
The last round of closures was in 2005 and resulted in the merger of Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Lakehurst Naval Air Station into the joint base. But it also resulted in the closure of Fort Monmouth and the loss of thousands of high-paying jobs.
Convincing the Air Force to locate the KC-46s at the base was considered a huge victory for the installation’s viability and future, but lawmakers also have made ensuring the tankers arrive on schedule a top priority.
Kim, whose district includes the joint base, also made improving installation resilience to natural disasters in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and the devastation Hurricane Michael caused last year at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida a priority.
One of his NDAA amendments mandates the military hold additional “black-start” exercises at joint installations to test resiliency and identify weaknesses.
Under a black-start exercise, the installation simulates the loss of electrical power and other utilities from a natural disaster, cyberattack or other catastrophe, and requires base personnel to take actions to respond and adapt.
“We saw the impact of Superstorm Sandy on our community and the importance of our joint base in helping New Jersey recover,” Kim said in a statement. “This amendment will ensure that when the new superstorm hits, our joint base is ready.”
Assisting military families
Kim contributed language to the defense bill to help military spouses find employment by expanding eligibility for a program that reimburses a spouse’s tuition, training or certification fees.
Kim said the measure is intended to help address the 24% unemployment rate among active-duty spouses, who often are challenged in finding work when they move to different states because their license or certification is not recognized.
New Jersey lawmakers are working on legislation to recognize out-of-state certificates, but Kim said expanding eligibility to the federal program — currently capped at lower pay grades — would provide immediate help.
“With nearly a quarter military spouses unemployed, we simply cannot wait to take action to give them the help they need to find good-paying jobs,” he said.
Other parts of the defense bill authorize funding for radar upgrades for F-16 fighters used by the 177th Fighter Wing stationed at Atlantic City International Airport, and there is more than $400 million in funding for continued research and development at the Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County.
Securing jobs at Lockheed
In addition to the measures related to New Jersey’s installations, the final bill includes $40 million for the development of a high-energy laser system for deployment on Navy destroyers to intercept and destroy incoming missiles or drones. The system is being developed by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Some of the work is being performed at the company’s Borton Landing Road facility in Moorestown.
The funding for the laser program is expected to secure 70 jobs at Moorestown, according to the company.
Jobs at Boeing’s production facility in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, would be preserved with an amendment Norcross pushed to provide $28 million for the continued upgrade of the CH-47F Chinook helicopter used by the Army to transport troops and equipment. Also, military research programs at Rowan University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology will continue. Rowan is helping to develop engineering materials for extreme-cold regions; NJIT is developing low-cost, environmentally friendly munitions casings.
In total, the bill calls for $733 billion in funding for defense programs, including $69 billion for overseas missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other locations.
That total is less than the $750 billion the Pentagon requested in the White House’s budget proposal, and differs from the bill advanced by the GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee last month.
The bill calls for service members to receive a 3.1% raise and includes $11.5 billion for military construction and family housing.
A controversial component of the bill would prohibit the White House from diverting military funding for the construction of a wall or barriers along the border with Mexico, and prohibit the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons that the Trump administration argues are key to deterring Russia. The bill also rescinds restrictions on transferring prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and bans the center from receiving new detainees.