The M1 Abrams tank won $120 million for an upgrade program in the Defense spending bill unveiled by congressional leaders Tuesday, one of several increases for the Army's heavy vehicle programs.

Though the US Army's plan to provide the venerable General Dynamics-made platform with better lethality, protection, networking gear and gas mileage, lawmakers aim to avoid a production break at the Army plant in Lima, Ohio, where the Abrams is made.

The measure also adds $100 million and $50 million over the Pentagon's budget request for Oshkosh's Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles and Family of Heavy Tactical Vehicles, respectively; it adds $50 million for GD's Stryker, to fund a fourth double-V hull brigade set; and it adds $78 million and $28.5 million, respectively, for BAE Systems' M88 Hercules and M2 Bradley.

The increases comes as the Army plans to develop new concepts for ground vehicles and keep existing fleets rolling, largely through engineering change proposals.

The Abrams upgrade program earlier this year completed its critical design review for the integration of an auxiliary power unit to drive down fuel consumption as turbine engine idle times are decreased. The tank's sights and sensors are also due to be upgraded.

For several years, lawmakers have bucked Army leaders who — while acknowledging industrial base benefits — have argued for freezing production and spending the money on higher priority programs. In March 2013, Gen. Odierno told the Associated Press, "If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way."

There is an argument to be made in Congress that the Army acquisitions directorate, given its record wasting money on failed vehicle development programs, should be second-guessed on Abrams, said James Hasik, a Brent Scowcroft Center resident senior fellow for defense. Yet Hasik favors shutting down the production line to fire it up again at a later date, if necessary.

A controversial 2013 report by AT Kearney, commissioned by the Army, found that when it comes to heavy manufacturing capacity, the US defense sector actually "exceeds known demand for current programs and for planned future programs," and that given the current defense downturn "most suppliers have mitigated the overall revenue impact with other work."

"We're overcapacity, and this coming off of wars were we added capacity for manufacturing and maintenance, so we actually need a lot of retrenchment at the moment," Hasik said of the ground vehicle market.

DoD's "Annual Industrial Capabilities Report to Congress" for 2013 noted a dramatic drop in the Army's requirements for legacy ground vehicles. The Army's only major tactical vehicle programs on the horizon are the wheeled Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Armored Multipurpose Tactical Vehicle, which will likely be tracked—though neither would reach full production for years.

A production award is expected in late fiscal 2015 for approximately 50,000 JLTVs for the Army and another 5,500 for the Marine Corps. The first Army unit is expected to be equipped in fiscal 2018 and the first Marine unit in fiscal 2022.

Engineering change proposals planned for the Abrams in 2017 and 2018 would help to revitalize the combat vehicle industrial base, the report notes. But overall, manufacturing capabilities are projected to, "undergo a substantial drawdown and consolidation across the industrial base," with "a loss of at least some military unique engineering and manufacturing capabilities."

The Army's Future Fighting Vehicle program, which replaces the canceled Ground Combat Vehicle, is expected to yield technology and concepts before a decision in 2016 whether to replace or upgrade the Bradley. Army officials say it is a research and development effort, and there are no current plans to build.

Outside of ground vehicles, the 2015 versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 and Omnibus Appropriations Act held "no big surprises," the Association of the US Army said in a statement, but also no relief from the defense spending caps or from the threat of sequestration.

Active Army personnel end strength was set at 490,000 for fiscal 2015, a drop of 30,000 from 2014, as requested. Army Reserve strength is set at 202,000, a drop of 3,000. Army National Guard strength for 2015 is 350,200, a 4,000 reduction. The funding bill includes $41.1 billion to cover Army personnel costs, with only minor changes from the Army's request.

The final bill includes $31.9 billion in operations and maintenance funding for the active Army, plus $2.5 billion for the Army Reserve and $6.2 billion for the National Guard.

There is $3.9 billion included for Army aviation procurement, mostly for rotary aircraft. Lawmakers expressed concern about Army plans to divest of Bell TH-67 and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters and asked for an Army report on what will happen to the airframes and what effect divestment might have on the rotary wing industrial base.

A week earlier, the National Guard Association of the United States, which has criticized the Army's aviation restructuring plans, lauded language proposed for the Defense bill that would block plans to consolidate Apaches in the Active component before 2016 and require more study of the issue.■

Email:jgould@defensenews.com.