Senate, House defense bills in conflict over funding for breakdown-prone Offutt jets

Senate, House defense bills in conflict over funding for breakdown-prone Offutt jets
One of the Offutt-based 55th Wing’s OC-135 Open Skies jets in flight. The jets were built in 1961 and have suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns in recent years.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are at odds over whether to buy replacements for two breakdown-prone 55th Wing jets that fly Open Skies aerial photography missions over Russia.

The full House approved the $717 billion National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday, but without $222 million to purchase two small airliners for the Open Skies flights.

The flights are required under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which allows 34 countries (including the United States and Russia) to conduct supervised aerial photography over one another’s territory.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, cut Open Skies funding from the House bill because he believes the treaty is flawed and as a tactic to pressure the Russians over alleged violations of the treaty. He has said Russia benefits from the treaty, while the United States does not.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Thornberry to keep the funding this year but believes the chairman will consider doing so next year. He introduced an amendment on the House floor to restore the funding, but the House Rules Committee blocked it. A Bacon amendment that did pass would require the Defense Department to report to Congress on the state of the Open Skies fleet by next January.

On the Senate side, Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer persuaded the Senate Armed Services Committee to keep the Open Skies funding in the Senate version of the bill. The committee approved the bill on a 25-2 vote. It will now go on to the full Senate for approval, and eventually to a conference committee that will work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The U.S. flies the Open Skies flights with two OC-135 jets built in 1961. They are based at Offutt Air Force Base. In 2017, they completed only 64 percent of their scheduled flights over Russia, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in letter this week to Fischer. Russia, which uses newer aircraft, typically completes all of its flights, Mattis said.

“The 1960s-era U.S. Open Skies aircraft are ill-suited to extreme operating environments in Russia and experience regular, unplanned maintenance issues, often resulting in delays or cancellations,” Mattis said in the letter.

In July 2017, a U.S. flight over Russia was scrubbed after the OC-135’s landing gear failed to retract following takeoff, according to Russian media reports. And the pilot of a March 2016 flight out of Khabarovsk, Russia, declared an emergency after a generator failure was compounded by a fire in the pressurization system that filled the cabin with smoke.

“If we don’t have the planes to complete the mission, we’re not hurting the Russians,” Fischer said. “We’re hurting ourselves.”

About $500 million in other funding for Offutt-based aircraft is included in both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

That includes more than $200 million to replace two WC-135 radiation-detection jets with three tankers refurbished for the reconnaissance mission. It also includes $185 million to upgrade mission equipment on other 55th Wing aircraft.

The House bill also included a 2.6 percent pay increase for military personnel as well as 77 F-35 Joint Strike fighters, 135 M1 Abrams tanks and two Virginia-class attack submarines.

Bacon said five of his bills were included in the National Defense Authorization Act, including measures dealing with electronic warfare and Gold Star families.

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