Mississippi to get $1 billion in federal funds for warship, saving 3,000 jobs

Mississippi’s congressional delegation on Friday celebrated saving as many as 3,000 state jobs by securing $1 billion for an amphibious warship in the massive spending bill awaiting final Senate passage. The ship will be built at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula.

The House had allotted $800 million for construction of a 12th LPD 17 San Antonio-class vessel, but the figure was bumped to $1 billion during negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee, presumably through the influence of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the committee’s vice chairman and a key negotiator.

The ship, designed to carry Marines and their equipment to foreign shores, was not included in President Barack Obama’s proposed budget. But Navy and Marines officials told Congress they could use more of the warships. The latest order is expected to preserve jobs that would have been eliminated with completion of the 11th vessel, possibly trickling down to more lost jobs at Ingalls’ suppliers.

With Senate passage Friday, Congress also completed action on a long-awaited defense authorization bill. Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, in whose district the amphibious ship will be built, said that the fiscal 2015 legislation that passed as the spending bills progressed “not only provides for the security of our nation at home and abroad, but it secures the military assets of South Mississippi “

The legislation passed Friday also protects other defense programs based in Mississippi.

It imposes an additional restriction barring the Air Force from transferring C-130J transport planes from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi to Little Rock Air Force Base or any other site until the Pentagon conducts a full cost-benefit analysis of the proposed shift. Palazzo took credit for including the restriction for a third straight year.

Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who hailed the passage of the defense bill, said it will block the transfers “unless the Air Force can substantiate its claim that the transfers will save taxpayer dollars – a claim that the facts do not support.”

Wicker also noted that the authorization measure will protect the nation’s National Guard units from “ill-advised personnel cuts.”

The authorization bill also freezes through fiscal 2015 the Army’s planned movement of AH-64 Apache helicopters from the National Guard, including those based in Tupelo. Opponents argued that to transfer them to the Army would destroy entire units of highly trained citizen soldiers.

In addition, the measure that passed Friday would impose new reporting requirements on the defense secretary regarding the management of military airspace to avoid conflicts between military drones and non-military aircraft. Military drones are flown from Camp Shelby and are tested by several private companies operating in Mississippi. For example, Northrop Grumman’s Moss Point plant produces the long distance-flying Global Hawk.

In addition, a measure in the bill backed by Wicker aims to address soaring suicide rates by U.S. troops. Authored by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., it requires annual mental health assessments for all service members, guarantees privacy for those seeking help for mental health problems and requires a Pentagon evaluation of existing military mental health practices.

Other 2015 defense funding affecting Mississippi:

– $402 million to purchase 55 Lakota Light Utility Helicopters, which are made in Columbus, Miss.

– $363.5 million, which exceeds Obama’s budget by $122.5 million, for F-15 radar upgrades and Digital Radar Warning Receivers built in Forest, Miss. for the Air National Guard.

– $17.2 million to expand the Western Maneuver Area, a 3,800-acre special operations training area at the Stennis Space Center.