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Congress authorises US$577 billion in US defense spending

[WASHINGTON] The US Congress approved an annual defense policy bill on Friday that authorizes American training for Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting Islamic State rebels and sets overall defense spending at US$577 billion, including US$64 billion for wars abroad.

The Senate passed the legislation and sent it to President Barack Obama to sign into law. The House of Representatives last week endorsed the measure, which sets defense policy and authorises spending levels for the 2015 fiscal year, which began on Oct 1, but does not actually appropriate funding.

The bill approves a Pentagon base budget of US$496 billion, in line with Obama's request, plus nearly US$64 billion for conflicts abroad including the war in Afghanistan. It also authorises US$17.9 billion for Energy Department nuclear weapons work.

The measure formally endorses the Pentagon's plan to vet, train and equip a moderate Syrian opposition military force to fight Islamic State rebels, defend the Syrian people and promote conditions for a negotiated end to Syria's civil war.

The US military program to train and assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants also was authorised.

The bill takes new steps to control personnel costs, which consume about half the Pentagon budget, essentially approving a year's worth of proposed long-term reforms but delaying further action until hearing in February from a congressionally appointed commission on military compensation.

The measure increases co-pays on most prescription drugs by US$3, reduces the military housing allowance by 1 percentage point and remains silent on military pay hikes, thus allowing the Pentagon to implement a proposed 1 per cent raise. In the past, Congress often approved pay raises above levels recommended by the Pentagon but did not do so this year.

The bill rejects a number of Pentagon efforts to retire or curtail weapons systems the department insists it can no longer afford to maintain because of budget cuts intended to trim projected defense spending by nearly US$1 trillion over a decade.

The measure bars retirement of the A-10 Warthog close air support plane, beloved by ground troops because of its ability to fly low and destroy enemy tanks. The Air Force wants to retire the fleet to cut costs and retrain maintenance personnel to work on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

It also prohibits inactivation of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, a step being studied for budgetary reasons, and authorises funding to begin an overhaul and refueling of the ship.