CAPITOL HILL: After you count up all the cuts and additions in the House Armed Services Committee’s mark-up of the Pentagon budget, the bill appears to authorize $554 billion for national defense (budget function 050).

At a time when the Pentagon faces the prospect of mandatory spending cuts of another $53 billion if sequestration happens right after the Jan.1 hangover, that’s $4 billion more than the president’s request of $550 billion and eight billion more than the maximum permitted by the Budget Control Act, $546 billion.

The full committee has yet to vote — that comes May 9th — and the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate haven’t even set their figures for Function 050 yet. But the annual train wreck is already taking shape. Even in this loudly proclaimed era of austerity, it’s much easier for politicians in Congress and the White House alike, to add than to subtract.

So, as usual, the Army National Guard gets unasked-for gifts. Under the tree this year, it’s tanks: The HASC’s AirLand subcommittee added $383 million for M1 Abrams main battle tanks, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (a heavily armed, tank-like troop carrier), and M88 Hercules recovery vehicles (which tows other tanks). One objective is to bring the Guard’s armored vehicle fleet up to the same standard of modernization as the active-duty force’s. The bigger picture goal is to keep the handful of production lines capable of building these war machines from shutting down, which the Pentagon had planned for them to do for several years starting in 2013, with a restart depending on the currently uncertain prospects of the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program. Congress didn’t want to leave hanging such a key piece of the defense industrial base — and of their own political base.

Likewise, the Readiness Subcommittee rejected the Navy’s plan to retire three Ticonderoga-class cruisers. (They accepted the retirement of a fourth cruiser, the Port Royal, which ran aground in 2009 and has never been quite right since). The Navy hadn’t been enthusiastic about scrapping these ships itself, since they have many years of life left in them, but it argued the cost to modernize them to the standard of other Aegis cruisers and destroyers would be prohibitive, which put them at the head of the line for decommissioning when the Navy needed something big to cut.

Meanwhile, the seapower panel ordered the Navy not to let its ballistic missile submarine fleet fall below 12 ships — it’s currently at 14 but the plan had been to drop to 10 for over a decade to give more time to develop a replacement, the SSBN-X, to the current Ohio class. Seapower also gave the Navy authority to buy one more Virginia-class attack sub and one more Aegis destroyer than it had planned. Of course, there isn’t any money to do this, since the HASC doesn’t approve money that can be spent. It set policy, which is largely a prescriptive exercise.

The committee also oordered the Air Force to keep flying all of its Block 30 Global Hawk UAVs, 18 of which were bought before the program’s cancellation, instead of warehousing them. That adds $260 million to the bill, counting necessary personnel, operations & maintenance, and procurement.

And the personnel panel rejected the administration’s proposal to raise premiums on the healthcare plan it offers for retired military personnel — a politically unpalatable cut, to be sure, given both strong “support the troops” sentiment and the political clout of the military retiree lobby, but arguably a necessary one giving the spiraling costs of military personnel in general and the Pentagon’s Tricare health program in particular.

You can make a case for any one of these add-ons and add-backs. But the fact that the HASC nets out at $4 billion over the administration’s request, which itself is $4 billion over the Budget Control Act, shows how strong the pressure is (on the House side at least) to maintain or increase defense spending. And that’s under the current set of constraints; if sequestration hits, we’ll need to cut another half-billion bucks.

“Sequestration is not hypothetical, it is the law of the land,” warned Sen. Roger Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee, which held its own hearing on Marine Corps acquisitions just before its House counterparts marked up. “Sequestration will take place unless legislation is passed to undo it and signed by the president.” No one wants a sequester — but no one quite seems to know how to prevent it, either.

A number of policy prescriptions were added to the bill, in addition to the money that was authorized. One of the most interesting highlights the constant friction between the search for efficiencies and the institutional interests of the various branches of government. The strategic forces subcommittee told the Air Force in its mark that it doesn’t really trust the service’s request for advanced funding. Congress, especially appropriators, regards any effort to circumvent or circumscribe their powers to tell the executive branch how to spend taxpayer money with great suspicion.

Here’s what the proposed bill language says about the service’s attempt to get spending locked in ahead of time for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites.

“The Air Force believes a block buy of two satellites can drive down costs, improve stability in the space industrial base, and allow for investments in technology that will lower risk for future programs. However, such an approach, if fully funded in a single fiscal year, would consume a large portion of the overall space budget and negatively impact other mission-critical programs.
While the committee supports the objectives of ESP [the Air Force’s new approach to space acquisition], it has reservations about its implementation. The committee does not support the request for advanced appropriations authority and notes that such authority has not been provided to the Department in the past and would limit the oversight ability of future Congresses.”

Translation: So, you wanna save money? Fine. But don’t tread on me.

The strategic forces subcommittee also took a pretty hard line with a Missile Defense Agency effort, the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS). The proposed language, which is likely to be approved May 9 by the full committee, stops all the $297.3 million funding requested for PTSS “until a contract is signed for an analysis of alternatives [AOA] by a Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation (FFRDC), which has not been involved with the PTSS program to date, and which appoints a panel of independent study leaders.”

OK, you might say — they have strong reservations. But the committee keeps going, requiring “that the terms of reference for the study should be shared with the congressional defense committees when the AOA is commenced.” And they keep on going, spelling out some of the terms of the AOA. They “would require that the analysis of alternatives examine the possible lowest cost sensor option, i.e., land-, air-, space-based, or some combination of them, with respect to acquisition and operations and sustainment costs over the next 10 years, and for improving homeland missile defense, including adding discrimination capability for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System.” There’s more, but you get the idea.

In short, don’t expect PTSS to get much money, if the House has anything to say about it.

Colin Clark contributed to this story.