Lawmakers to Army: Keep making tanks

A bipartisan group of more than 120 lawmakers is warning the Army that a proposed halt in tank production could endanger the country’s ability to build war machines.

In a letter sent Friday to Army Secretary John McHugh, the lawmakers questioned the service’s plan to cease production in 2013 of the General Dynamics-made Abrams battle tank. If enacted, it would mark the first time since 1941 that the U.S. military has not had an active tank-production line.

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“The end of Abrams production would shut down the unique national asset that is the U.S. tank industrial base even with the expectation that later in the decade the same industrial base will be required to produce modernized Abrams tanks and/or the Ground Combat Vehicle,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Ground Combat Vehicle is the Army’s project to build a next-generation fighting unit. The program has had several sets of specification, but has been stopped and restarted several times over the last few years.

“The cost of shutdown and restart of Abrams tank production appears to be more than the cost of continued limited production,” according to the group. “Instead of reconstituting this vital manufacturing capability at a higher cost, it would seem prudent to invest those select resources in continued Abrams production.”

Loren Thompson, a defense specialist at the Lexington Institute and an industry consultant, said it is “hard to believe the Army’s contention that shutting down the tank plant for three years and then restarting is cheaper than sustaining low-rate production.”

The problem, largely, is the impact on the current workforce, Thompson said.

“You can mothball equipment, but you can’t mothball people,” he said. “Skilled workers will go elsewhere for jobs and suppliers will drift away.”

The letter obtained by The Hill proposes an alternative plan to McHugh, a former GOP congressman from New York who was once the House Armed Services Committee ranking member. The letter proposes buying 70 versions of the current Abrams tank “in order to bridge the production gap until the next generation of Abrams begins fielding.”

The group requested McHugh’s views on that proposal, and on “what is needed to ensure that the tank industrial base is preserved.”

The vehicle plan is part of a larger trend that Thompson finds troubling.

“The Army consistently shows worse judgment in acquisition decisions than the other services. It wastes billions of dollars each year on programs that either end up getting canceled or are executed in uneconomical fashion,” Thompson said. “Congress needs to investigate why the Army can’t seem to manage its weapons purchases effectively.”

The group backing the letter spanned all political factions, including Republicans like Reps. Jo Bonner (Ala.) and Joe Wilson (S.C.), Democrats like Reps. Jim Moran (Va.) and Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) and Tea Party-affiliated members like Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). 

Thompson said the size and bipartisan nature of the group shows how “little confidence members have in the service’s acumen on acquisition matters.”

Lawmakers will get their first chance to change the service’s plans Wednesday when the House Armed Services Committee takes up its 2012 Pentagon authorization measure.

Erik Wasson contributed.