By John T. Bennett
WASHINGTON — More than 120 U.S. lawmakers are urging Army brass to reverse a plan under which the service would stop buying Abrams tanks for three years.
The collection of Republican and Democratic House members “are deeply concerned to learn that the Army has once again failed to fund production of the [Abrams] tank,” they wrote in a May 21 letter to Army Secretary John McHugh.
“This decision neglects the Army’s responsibility to modernize the National Guard units, and undervalues the damaging impact to the highly specialized industrial base that supports the program,” states the letter.
Under a years-old plan, the Army intends to suspend buying upgraded Abrams tanks in 2016, a freeze that would last until 2019. The service wants to use the savings for other priorities, and believes sales to other nations will keep the production line running.
Industry officials and lawmakers with a stake in the program aren’t so sure that’s the best idea.
“It is our understanding that the Army believes that Foreign Military Sales (FMS) alone are enough to keep the facility at minimum levels of production until the next major upgrades to the Abrams tank take place in the 2019 time frame.
“Congress has consistently taken the position that FMS alone is an unacceptable level of risk,” the lawmakers wrote. “FMS combined with a minimum level of United States-based tanks for the National Guard is the most rational path forward until the next series of upgrades begins.”
Industry officials and lawmakers are worried that without sustained U.S. Army buys, General Dynamics would be forced to shutter the Lima, Ohio-based production line.
Because highly skilled, specially trained workers would likely have to find work elsewhere, stakeholders worry about the cost of restarting the line as US defense budgets are shrinking. They often talk of a worst-case scenario under which the tank plant would never reopen.
The Abrams program shows how the U.S. military services and industry have become experts at spreading work on major weapon programs across the country, and thereby locking in the support of sizable numbers in Congress.
In addition to Ohio, work is conducted on the Abrams program in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, according to an Army fact sheet.
“The industrial base cannot be turned on and off like a light switch,” the lawmakers tell McHugh. “Failing to fund the program in 2014 would likely result in a production break in 2016 that would significantly impact the skilled workforce as well as drive many small companies out of the business.”
The lawmakers say that development would leave “our nation without the necessary industrial capacity to produce tanks when we need them,” states the letter. “The Army must manage these facilities in a responsible manner that does not require Congress to annually consider whether or not they are being properly funded.”
Congressional sources and analysts often say the ground service is counting on lawmakers to come up with the funds to keep American tanks rolling off the Lima line.
However, that could prove difficult for 2014 since defense budget caps are in place and the 2014 Pentagon budget now would have to be cut by around $50 billion unless sequestration is addressed before Oct. 1.