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Defense budget steers billions to Puget Sound for Boeing jets and Navy bases, but much less for JBLM

The Pentagon’s $577.1 billion budget for 2015 has a lot of good news for Northwest military contractors and the Puget Sound’s Navy bases, but it puts off some hard decisions that could lead to big cuts in the years ahead.

The budget, which is expected to face a vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday, sets aside $4.4 billion for Boeing-made Navy submarine-hunting jets and Air Force refueling tankers.

It also includes $214 million for construction projects at Navy-run facilities in the region, including $47.8 million for a Navy Reserve operations center to be built at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The upcoming budget shows that the Pentagon’s priorities in the Puget Sound have shifted away from building up Army units at JBLM for combat tours. In the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Army spent $1.7 billion on construction at JBLM.

Now the Army is reducing its footprint at the base south of Tacoma while the Navy is spending big to develop programs at Naval Base Kitsap and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The overall Pentagon plan more or less maintains the status quo in defense spending, earmarking about $496 billion for general programs, $63.7 billion for overseas conflicts and $17.9 billion for defense-related programs in other federal agencies.

Troops will get a 1 percent pay raise.

Lawmakers saved for another day difficult decisions on spending cuts.

The budget does not relieve the drastic spending cuts known as sequestration that are due to begin in earnest in 2016. If those take effect, the Army would enact worst-case force cuts that would strike tens of thousands of positions for soldiers and ripple out at JBLM.

The proposal also rejects all of the specific spending cuts that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recommended in February when he announced the Obama administration’s preferred Pentagon budget.

At the time, Hagel said he wanted to free up money so the Defense Department could trim its spending while maintaining a combat-ready force.

His pitch included a round of base closures that Congress immediately rejected.

He recommended eliminating entire weapons programs that Pentagon leaders considered outdated, such as the Air Force’s close-air support A-10 Warthog and its U-2 spy plane. Supporters of those programs blocked those moves, too.

And Hagel wanted to trim personnel costs by raising medical insurance fees, slashing support for commissaries and reducing the amount of money troops receive for housing allowances by 5 percent.

Those proposals did not fly. Lawmakers said they wanted to wait for recommendations from an official military compensation commission before making significant changes to troops’ pay and benefits.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, has been frustrated that Congress put defense cuts on the table when it approved sequestration, but that it has rejected specific cuts recommended by the Pentagon.

“There are sensible places to make cuts in the defense budget, but (lawmakers) won’t make them,” Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a recent interview with The News Tribune.

Sequestration would cut almost $500 billion in military spending over a decade.

In the Puget Sound region, the defense budget allocates $83.8 million for more work on a new submarine wharf at Naval Base Kitsap. It also pays to build a $13.8 million ship maintenance facility there, and a $16.4 million water treatment system.

Those projects, as well as a provision requiring the military to maintain an aircraft carrier fleet of 11 ships, represent “critical investments in America’s Navy,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.

Whidbey Island would receive about $50 million for facilities that would support new Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance jets and C-40 aircraft.

“We’re basically building the home for six P-8A squadrons,” said Rep Rick Larsen, D-Everett. “It’s great news for the stability of the base.”

The budget includes about $2.4 billion for the Boeing-made KC-46 refueling tanker and about $2 billion to buy more of Boeing’s P8-A Poseidon jets.

Like Smith, Larsen worried that looming sequestration cuts will leave the military with the wrong mix of programs.

“Congress is unwilling to make cuts to military programs that have outlived their usefulness, and as a result we end up hamstringing our military,” he said.

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