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Defense bill passes Senate with provisions for Alaska missile defense, icebreakers

  • Author: Erica Martinson
  • Updated: October 24, 2017
  • Published September 18, 2017

The Defense Satellite Communications System building at Fort Greely is part of the ground-based missile defense system there. (Eric Engman / The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Monday passed a $692 billion defense authorization bill that included provisions to bolster missile defense systems in Alaska and approval for building up to six Arctic icebreakers.

The Alaska provisions are a mark of success for the state's lawmakers, who have long pushed for the provisions. But seeing them through to reality will require Congress to manage the full scope of appropriations bills in the coming year — something that happens rarely.

Since 1976, Congress has passed all 12 appropriations bills by Oct. 1, the fiscal year deadline, only four times, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. This year, Congress has already agreed to kick the process to December, but it is unclear if that will lead to legislative success.

Though Congress struggles with appropriations, it has managed to pass the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for more than 50 years, and once again Monday. The NDAA directs the Pentagon's budget and provides general congressional direction to the military.

The House of Representatives passed a $696 billion version of the bill in July.

The bill passed Monday boosts the Pentagon's budget, expands missile defenses in response to growing threats from North Korea, and moves Alaska's quest for more icebreakers another step forward.

The legislation authorizes the Coast Guard to acquire up to six icebreakers. Currently, the military branch has two, but one is not operational. Russia, by contrast, has more than 40 icebreakers and more underway, according to Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan sits on the committee that crafts the NDAA, and was eager to tout the bill's acquisitions for Alaska on Monday.

Sullivan said he is "certainly hopeful" that Congress could appropriate funding for icebreakers this year. Last year, "the appropriations committee funded icebreakers up to a billion dollars. Again, didn't make final passage, but I think that shows broad interest" in Congress, Sullivan said.

The focus on icebreakers in this year's NDAA is a first-time boost, Sullivan said.

He said the bill would also "rebuild" the military from its Obama-era cuts in service members, and provide funding for the ongoing efforts to home new F-35 fighter jets in Fairbanks.

The bill also requires the Defense Department to deploy 14 new ground-based missile interceptors at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, with $8.5 billion in new spending. Missile defense has become a greater national priority given recent threats from North Korea.

Sullivan said the bill authorizes more than President Donald Trump's budget request, and drew more than 25 co-sponsors.

The bill passed by a vote of 89 to 8 Monday evening.

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