By Sean Kennedy
The hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks that Congress has approved for upgrades to the M1 Abrams are so “vital” for national security that the Department of Defense (DOD) has more than 2,000 of the tanks parked in a California desert.
This special characterization of the M1 Abrams came from Senate appropriator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who on August 2, 2012 stated that the program is not only “…vital to our country’s national security and military readiness, but is critically important to the economy of Lima and Allen County.” This comment demonstrates precisely why it is so difficult to cut wasteful spending in the DOD budget. Even when the Pentagon admits it does not need a program, members of Congress frequently support it anyway, more often citing the need to protect local jobs than the need to protect the nation.
Such is the case with the M1 Abrams; despite firm opposition from DOD, Congress continues to fund a program designed to retrofit the M1 to the M1A2SEP variant. On December 18, 2012, conferees for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) agreed on a $136 million earmark for the M1 Abrams upgrade program, splitting the difference between the amounts authorized by the House ($181 million) and the Senate ($91 million) in their respective versions of the bill. Yes, there are still earmarks despite the moratorium. Since FY 1994, Congress has added 31 earmarks for the M1 Abrams program, costing taxpayers $519.2 million.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on February 17, 2012, Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno told Congress that the U.S. possesses more than enough tanks to meet the country’s needs. He said, “Our tank fleet is in good shape and we don’t need to [make repairs] because of the great support that we have gotten over the last two years.” The army intends to retrofit the remainder of the 2,384 tanks it needs by the end of 2013, after which it would delay the M1 upgrade program until 2017, saving taxpayers $3 billion.
During this timeframe, the DOD would focus on designing the next generation of tanks, which would be better equipped for the changing nature of warfare. Intended to take on other tanks, the M1 Abrams proved susceptible to asymmetric tactics such as improvised explosive devises employed by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given these vulnerabilities, the tank’s usefulness in future counterinsurgency warfare has been openly questioned. In his testimony, General Odierno stated that “we don’t believe we will ever see a straight conventional conflict again in the future.” Instead, the U.S. will face adversaries implementing a mix of conventional and unconventional tactics. General Odierno also claimed it would take $2.8 billion to keep the General Dynamics plant in Lima open until FY 2017, and that the Army would aggressively search for suitors to purchase the M1 Abrams through its foreign military sales program to make up a portion of the lost income.
Despite longstanding and clear opposition from the Pentagon, members of Congress continue to argue for funding and have earmarked hundreds of millions for the M1 retrofit program. On April 20, 2012, a bipartisan letter insisting on the continuation of the program from 173 representatives reached the desk of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Although the tank plant is located in Lima, Ohio, its suppliers are spread across the country, which explains the widespread support.
Like many private companies pursuing favorable legislation in the nation’s capital, General Dynamics is heavily invested in lobbying. According to data collected by the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Responsive Politics, General Dynamics’ Political Action Committee (PAC) has contributed a total of $5.3 million to current members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services (SCAS), HASC, and the Senate and House defense appropriations subcommittees since January 2001. The M1 is championed by powerful allies, counting among its supporters SCAS Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
Unsurprisingly, General Dynamics has contributed a substantial amount of money to the two chairmen. Chairman McKeon has received $68,000 from General Dynamic’s PAC and employees since 2001, with $56,000 of that coming after he became the ranking Republican in 2009 and then chairman in 2010. Chairman Levin has received $46,200 since 2001. In addition, 137 of the 173 cosigners of the April 2012 letter to Secretary Panetta received campaign contributions from General Dynamics.
The case against continued funding for the M1 Abrams is foolproof. The DOD is on record as saying it will have a sufficient amount of tanks by 2013. In addition, valid objections exist about the M1’s role in the face of the likely threats against the U.S., particularly where it fits into the national security strategy that will be redefined after Iraq and Afghanistan.
When searching for ways to reduce spending in all areas of government, including defense, members of Congress’ must undertake a sober appraisal to determine whether a particular program should be funded. Parochial interests must stop affecting this process. Unfortunately, given the inclusion of the M1 in the NADAA conference report, an earmark for the M1 in the final defense appropriations bill seems a foregone conclusion. Taxpayers will again foot the bill for modifications to what Gen. Odierno described as “280 tanks that we simply do not need.”