An M1A2 Abrams fires a round during a joint exercise last September between U.S. and South Korean forces in Pocheon, South Korea. Three U.S. senators are pushing for funding to build 33 more M1A2 tanks to keep the production line open. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
Despite the U.S. Army’s insistence that its tank fleet is in good shape, congressional support for additional funding for the M1 Abrams tank is growing, with 173 members of the House of Representatives asking Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to sustain tank production in the 2013 budget.
In an April 20 letter, lawmakers from both political parties say the new strategic guidance, which the Pentagon released in January, ignores the combat vehicle industrial base, which “is a unique asset that consists of hundreds of public and private facilities across the United States.”
For the M1 Abrams tank, the most important facility is the General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) production line in Lima, Ohio.
Every House member from the Ohio delegation, with the exception of Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, signed the letter.
The Army has told Congress that it would like to finish its Abrams buy in 2014 and then not begin upgrading its current fleet until 2017. Senior Army officials testified this spring that the decision was made to stop buying tanks it doesn’t need and instead to invest in higher priorities, such as aviation and providing a battlefield network.
The service made the same argument last year, but Congress was not convinced.
The 2012 defense appropriations bill provided an additional $255 million to buy 42 more tanks. With congressional support strong again this year, it looks like similar funding is likely to be added to the 2013 budget as well.
The House letter follows one from Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Robert Casey, D-Pa., and John Kerry, D-Mass., who wrote April 18 to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asking them to fund an additional 33 M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) tanks, enough to keep the line in Lima open.
GDLS has estimated that $181 million is needed to build 33 more tanks.
The senators’ letter makes clear that jobs are a top concern.
“This proposal will impact the industrial base to the point that the supplier base will wither, factories will close, and thousands of highly skilled manufacturing jobs will be lost,” the senators say.
In recent weeks, industry officials from the tank supplier base have taken their case to Capitol Hill.
On March 27, more than 200 representatives from the industrial base traveled to Washington to visit with lawmakers and explain why they believe it’s important to continue Abrams tank production.
Bruce Barron, president and CEO of Barron Industries, a metal casting and machining company, said his company has been supplying General Dynamics for 30 years and has been in business for 89 years.
“Because of the Abrams reductions, we took our workforce of 115 in October down to 80, and it will go down further as the buys decrease,” Barron said. “So my message is the capability that we have — and all the other suppliers — is unique. To believe that you can shut it down for three years and turn it back on is not a realistic statement.”
Army leaders have said they understand the industrial base concerns and are trying to attract foreign buyers to fill in some of the production gaps.
“We’re teamed with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in particular, to be able to continue to pursue some production of tank capability at Lima, Ohio,” Lt. Gen. William Phillips, military deputy to the Army’s acquisition executive, told lawmakers March 8.
He said there were some other potential buyers, but that nothing had been finalized. According to GDLS, Morocco also is looking to buy 100 M1A1s.
At a March 22 breakfast in Washington, Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox, deputy chief of staff for Army programs (G-8), said the Army’s decision does not stem solely from fiscal pressures.
“We try to do what’s best for soldiers each and every day,” he said. “We know there are industrial base implications. This is a challenge for us and we understand there are jobs at risk. We don’t take that lightly. The challenge for us is not only the fiscal one, but also to understand the right technologies.
“I’ve used the example before that you don’t want to be in the position of, in 1939, where you say, ‘we’ve got to go out and protect the saber and the saddle industries, because our cavalry is going to need them for the future.’ We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right industrial challenges for the future and those are the ones we’ve got to focus on. I know we won’t get it exactly right, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Army also is nearing completion of a force mix study that may conclude that it can shed further heavy brigade combat teams.
“As we go through this force structure review, we actually might reduce the requirement for heavy capabilities, and that’s something that we have to make sure we take a look at,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said at a March 7 hearing of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.