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Famed Combat Tank Caught Up In Funding Battle

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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The M1 Abrams battle tank is the rock star of military armor, and is only made in one place: Lima, Ohio. But the U.S. Army says it’s done ordering them. Congress though, appears intent on spending millions for more tanks, arguing that cutting production is bad for the economy and national security. Ideastream’s Brian Bull reports.

Photo Gallery

An M1 Abrams blasts away with its 120mm cannon (image from General Dynamics Land Systems). At the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio, an Abrams awaits its treads (pic by Brian Bull) New components and modifications are added, to modernize the Abrams for today's battlefield (pic by Brian Bull). A row of Abrams await final inspection (pic by Brian Bull). An M1 rests in a loading area, waiting to be shipped by railcar to Ft. Hood, Texas (pic by Brian Bull).

Slideshow

A promotional video from shows the Abrams ripping up the landscape, and blasting enemy tanks from miles away…a superb long shot. It’s like watching a really good car commercial…that is, if the car weighed 70 tons, and packed a 120-millimeter cannon.

“Specialized armor will neutralize the threat of munitions, IEDS, and landmines,” softly growls the narrator. “Advanced systems will improve crew survivability.”

Focus now towards the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio.  The JSMC is a government-owned site run by General Dynamics.  Product manager Cliff Barber weaves past robotic arms, laser-cutters, and cranes, to reach a row of rusty orange hulks…some of the first Abrams tanks to be produced.  They’re waiting to be restored and upgraded at a cost of $6 million each.

“These particular shells that you see here were old M1A1s built in the late `80s.  And they’re now going to become M1A2 SEP V2s, which is the latest U.S. configuration of tanks.”

There are 800 workers here, down from 1250 three years ago. Back then, the plant rolled out two Abrams a day, now it’s one every two days.  The Army says it’s through ordering tanks for a while, meaning production will cease in 2014.  Pentagon officials add ceasing production will save billions, as they develop a new line of tank to be unveiled in 2017. 

But plant manager Keith Deters says idling production for three years doesn’t make sense. 

“The cost to shut it down, which there is significant cost there….the cost to bring it up…far outweigh the cost just to keep a steady state of minimum amount of tanks to flow through here.”

The possibility also troubles vendors, like Ed Verhoff of Verhoff Machine and Welding.  They make seats for the Abrams. He says 80 percent of their work is tied to the Abrams, and if the plant shuts down they’d have to develop new products for new customers.

“And if the tank plant would come back on, would it really be worth changing that back again? Then I can’t satisfy my other customer.”

Lima officials are also worried. In his office, Mayor David Berger is literally sitting in the dark.

”We’re without power, and we don’t have – eh, we’re closed,” he tells a local resident trying to open the door.

On this stormy afternoon, a blackout has hit the city.  Berger fears if the Lima plant is powered down, it could be for good. 

“We don’t believe that it’s possible actually to keep in place, the human resources, organizational resources, supply chain resources that can ultimately make restarting the plant possible,” says Berger. “A temporary shutdown is actually a permanent shutdown.”

After the Army didn’t order new tanks last year, Congress approved $255 million to upgrade dozens of M1s through 2014. 

Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and pushed hard for the spending. 

“You know last year I was able to play a role to ensure that the facility would stay open for this year.  But we’re now fighting the same fight for next year.”

Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown also backs the spending…even if the Army says it doesn’t need the tanks.

“We can make cuts to the Defense Department and we need to.  But it’s not just jobs for Ohio, it also contributes to our national defense in a long-term, industrial base, kind of way.”

It’s also campaign season, not the time to look weak on jobs or national security.  Portman is on the list of potential running mates to presumptive GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.  Senator Brown is in a nasty re-election race. Defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says while the fate of a tank plant may not resonate on a national scale, it could in a battleground state like Ohio. 

“So you can see Governor Romney, President Obama, and Congressional leadership talking defense policy, but what they are respectively really trying to do is maneuver an angle for that marginal Ohio voter who may actually think this issue is important enough to influence their vote this fall.”

If the president vetoes the Congressional tank funding, plant backers hope foreign tank sales can sustain production through 2017…though finding a customer as dependable as Uncle Sam may be a long shot…even for the powerful Abrams. 

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