With a relentlessly listless economy, stubborn unemployment and the approach of what threatens to be a long, cold winter, the region finally received some welcome news last week: congressional passage of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which not only supports new submarine construction but also rejects plans to consider a new round of base closings.
"This bipartisan bill makes a robust investment in the production and development of one of the most critical elements of our nation's defense - our undersea capabilities and the industrial base that sustain them," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. Rep. Courtney is vice chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and cochairman of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus.
Specifically, the bill authorizes two-a-year production of Virginia class submarines as well as ongoing development of the Ohio replacement program, which will greatly benefit Electric Boat in Groton and its thousands of shipyard workers.
An even greater boost comes from lifting the cloud of a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, which could have threatened the future of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, as it had in 2005. At the very least, if BRAC had been allowed to proceed the region and state would have been forced again to devote considerable time and money to block the recommendations - additional distractions when slumping casino revenues have been crimping the economy.
The bill approved Thursday authorizes a total of $5.4 billion for two Virginia-class subs in 2014 and advance procurement funding for two ships planned in 2015. It also authorizes more than $1 billion to continue development of the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine replacement, as well as $59 million for the continued development of the Virginia payload module, which would integrate strike payload capacity for Tomahawk Land Attack and follow on missiles in Block V submarines.
The federal budget also authorizes separate procurements that could benefit other defense contractors in Connecticut, including $1.1 billion for 65 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters, $831 million for 19 MH-60R helicopters, $411 million for 18 MH-60s helicopters, $334 million for a combat rescue helicopter, $503 million continued development of the CH-53K, a heavy lift helicopter being developed and tested by Sikorsky for the Marine Corps, and $94 million for development of the VXX presidential helicopter. Sikorsky, based in Stratford, is expected to compete for this contract.
This newspaper is pleased that in addition to authorizing weapons programs, the budget supports initiatives that will benefit men and women in uniform. It authorizes a 1 percent across-the-board military pay raise, as proposed in the 2014 budget request, which may seem small but in this climate at least gives a token reward to those who have sacrificed so much for their country.
We also are heartened that the budget rejects proposals that would have increased certain TRICARE fees.
Much to the credit of Congress, the budget contains more than 30 provisions designed to reverse what has been a disturbing problem: sexual assault in the military. The newly funded initiatives will strip commanders of their authority to dismiss courts martial or reduce sentences, and also establish minimum sentencing guidelines for sexual assault.
These measures are long overdue.
This newspaper also is pleased that the strong bipartisan vote of 350-69 could at last signal that Congress finally is taking its job seriously.
With midterm elections coming up next year, lawmakers may barely have enough time to salvage reputations so badly tarnished by years of partisan bickering and inaction.