The tank at the end of history

The M1 Abrams tank family is powerful, fast, tough and wildly successful. Still, the Army wants to pause its production for three years to save money.

Everybody loves the M1 Abrams family of tanks. They’re powerful, fast, tough, battle-proven and endlessly upgradable — Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli says the Abrams’ history of improvements provides an ideal blueprint for what he wants out of the new Ground Combat Vehicle. The only problem is, the Abrams might not need to exist anymore. It’s getting harder to imagine a scenario in which the Army would fight a big set piece tank battle, and although no one is seriously contemplating giving up heavy armor, the Army does want to bring its tank production to a halt. For awhile.

Army officials would like to shut down the Ohio factory that builds Abrams tanks for three years, which the Department of the Army says would save more than $1 billion. According to the Army’s plan, the line would close from 2013 to 2016, then start back up to begin upgrading existing tanks. It’s an usual situation: The U.S. government owns the tank factory in Lima, Ohio, but it’s operated by General Dynamics Land Systems, which is not pleased with the shutdown proposal.

G-D argues that although the government may continue to own all the equipment at the factory, it will lose the expert workers who know all the secrets in the art of tank construction. And a shutdown would also have ripple effects beyond Ohio, G-D argues; more than 500 other contractors would lose work and might also need to lay people off. The defense giant has set up a special website to make the case for the Abrams, which includes lushly produced movies and interviews with the salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners about why the Abrams needs to stay in steady production.

Although the Army’s plans for a production freeze have been in the works for a few years, they could get additional momentum given that DoD has been asked to find $400 billion in cuts over the next decade. Given that lawmakers barely seemed to understand the need for the GCV in a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year, it may be politically difficult to support building more and more main battle tanks when the Army already owns more than 5,000 of them, and the Marines operate more than 400.

Then again, don’t count the Abrams out yet. The chairman of the HASC air and land forces committee, Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, was scheduled to travel to Lima this week with Ohio Rep. Michael Turner, so Turner could make G-D’s case for a compromise in which it could keep the line running. As soon as we hear more about the trip, look for an update.