US lawmakers couldn’t squeeze additional Lockheed F-35s and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets into their annual defence policy bill and instead reverted to the numbers stated in the Obama administration's original budget request.

After ironing out differences in their separate legislation, House and Senate lawmakers came to a consensus this week on a defence policy bill that could come up for a vote by the end of this week. Senior armed services committee staff briefed reporters on 29 November about the unifying language, known as the conference report, which left out 11 F-35s from the services’ unfunded priorities list. Fourteen Super Hornets included in a previous version of the House bill are no longer included. Although $3.2 billion in the defence bill is tied to readiness, lawmakers were forced to find savings by omitting the additional fighters.

Committee members also stopped short of mandating a separate programme for F-35 follow-on modernisation, but the bill will require additional reporting on the modernisation to Congress. The major defence acquisition programme designation requires closer inspection from Congress and a selected acquisition report detailing the programme’s cost, schedule and performance.

The bill’s language does not include the need for a selected acquisition report, but the JPO is required to submit information that contains the basic elements of an acquisition programme baseline for block 4 modernisation, senior armed services members told reporters. Block 4 modernisation will deliver 80 new capabilities and 17 weapons. Block 4.1 capabilities will include electronic warfare improvements, cockpit navigation upgrades, AIM-9X Block II and Small Diameter Bomb II integration.

The bill mandates close surveillance by the Government Accountability Office of the US Air Force’s secretive Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber programme, but does not require restructuring the programme.

In April, Senate Armed Services Chairman Senator John McCain ripped into the Joint Programme Offices’ current plan for the F-35, which would keep the modernisation within the programme rather than as a separate line-item in the budget. With Block 4 modernisation set to cost nearly $3 billion over the next six years, the GAO argued the price alone would qualify the programme as a separate major defence acquisition programme.

“This is incredible given the Department’s dismal track record on these upgrade programmes, as the F-22A modernisation and upgrade debacle showed,” McCain said. “I have seen no evidence that DOD’s processes have improved to a level that would remove the need for a separate major defence acquisition programme that would enable close scrutiny by Congress.”

While McCain railed against cost-plus contracts, the new bill compromised with a preference rather than mandate for fixed-price contracts. In the case of the JSTARS recapitalisation programme, the Defense Secretary could waive the need for a fixed-price contract in case of a national security interest, staff say. Earlier this fall, US Air Force officials warned that a mandated fixed price contract would have delayed the recapitalisation initial operational capability.

Congress also softened its stance on the JPO, which McCain had threatened to scrap. Instead, the conference report directs the Defense Department to return within the next legislative cycle with recommendations on how to drawn down the office. Software and development will likely remain common across platforms, but some elements of the programme could be handed off to the services, staff say.

“That actual disestablishment would not occur in [Fiscal Year 18],” staff say. “That would be a future decision.”