An MV-22B Osprey, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, takes off from the USS Bonhomme Richard in the Coral Sea during Talisman Saber, July 20 , 2017.

An MV-22B Osprey, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, takes off from the USS Bonhomme Richard in the Coral Sea during Talisman Saber, July 20 , 2017. (Elijah Leinaar/U.S. Navy photo)

WASHINGTON – A panel of military leaders told a Senate committee on Tuesday that a proposed budget plan will address a long list of naval aircraft modernization and readiness concerns.

The Navy and Marine Corps officials made the comments during a hearing before a subpanel of the Senate Armed Services Committee examining the budget proposal.

The budget plan allows the Marine Corps to address “priorities as far as modernization and readiness and doing them at the same time,” Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the service’s deputy commandant for aviation, told the committee subpanel on seapower. Before “we weren’t buying enough new airplanes. With the budget that this committee and Congress is providing, it allows us to do both.”

The proposed 2019 budget will let the Navy and Marines reach their desired number of aircraft by 2022, military officials said in prepared testimony. That includes addressing a strike fighter shortfall with the purchase of 29 F-35s and 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets. The budget for the new F-35s alone totals $4.2 billion and nearly $2 billion for the F/A-18s, they said.

The comments will likely play into the development of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department. But whether the additional funding is approved remains to be seen.

Last month, the Pentagon released a 2019 budget plan seeking a 10 percent hike in funding to $686.1 billion to increase the size and might of the military. The move was largely in response to China and Russia’s growing capabilities detailed in the new National Defense Strategy, a new assessment of global threats revealed in January.

Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, commander of Naval Air Systems Command, said the 2019 budget proposal for naval aviation efforts is “very well aligned with and supportive” of the National Defense Strategy.

“Our ability to achieve this alignment is greatly facilitated by the additional budget flexibility provided by the recent bipartisan budget agreement,” he said. “The lethality that naval aviation brings to bear in support of our nation’s interest will be greatly enhanced” by additions in new aircraft, weapons and new, advanced capabilities as directed by the new budget proposal.

However, lawmakers have yet to appropriate money for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, and will hit a critical funding deadline March 23 for those plans.

For now, the military, like the rest of the government, is operating off its fifth temporary funding bill since the 2018 fiscal year began Oct. 1. Though lawmakers reached a two-year bipartisan budget deal to lift spending caps for defense and non-defense priorities, they have yet to appropriate an annual funding plan this year. By the time they get the full appropriation for 2018, it could be almost six months into the fiscal year.

“This is unacceptable,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, the ranking Democrat on the subpanel, said of the delay in funding.

One possibility, as highlighted by Grosklags on Tuesday and other military officials in recent weeks, is to give the Pentagon more time to spend the remainder of the 2018 funding after the 2019 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Without an additional legislative fix, the Pentagon will have to scramble to spend the money before the Oct. 1 deadline.

On Monday, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the acting chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., requested in a joint letter that Senate budget writers to give the Pentagon new flexibility once funding is approved.

“Recent budget caps and numerous continuing resolutions have placed a considerable strain on the Department of Defense,” the senators wrote. “In an effort to ensure that the department can responsibly allocate and obligate fiscal year 2018 funds with only half of the fiscal year remaining, we urge Congress to provide the department with greater spending flexibility for the remainder of this fiscal year.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel on seapower, said Tuesday that despite the funding delays, a final two-year budget deal would mark a new chapter for naval aviation.

“Years of [continuing] combat operations and inadequate funding have put the Navy and Marine Corps aviation into a hole from which they are only now beginning to recover,” Wicker said. “Congress shares the blame but we are beginning to turn things around.” Twitter: @cgrisales

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