The Army’s tank trap

Congressional tank advocates want more proof the Army would save money by idling its tank production line.

Like the Rock of Gibraltar, the Army brass is completely fixed in its plan to idle the Lima, Ohio tank plant for three years, but congressional lawmakers are as relentless as the pounding surf.

The latest tactic, broached Thursday by a House Armed Services Committee panel, is standard Potomac Judo: Where’s the analysis that shows the Army would actually save money with this technique?

“I’m not sure shutting down the line saves money; there’s only one brief analysis  on this,” said Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the Air and Land Forces Subcommittee chairman.

“We no longer have the privilege in our country of riding on our a huge commercial industrial base,” he said. “We can’t just stop using it and expect it to be there when we want to use it again. So we hope we can get additional studies – we hope GAO can look at it, we just need to know if, in fact, will we save any dollars by shutting down the lines, letting them go dark, pay the cost to shut down, pay the cost of start up again. I don’t know that there’s any study that indicates we’ll save money. And I don’t know how we reached the point in this process where anyone thought we’d save money.”

That point arrived because the Army did its own study. Army Secretary John McHugh told House appropriators on Wednesday, in fact, that the service believes it would cost about $600 million to shut down the tank plant for three years and restart it, as compared to about $3 billion to keep the line running that whole time. The Army wants to take delivery of its latest batch of upgraded tanks and then let Lima go dark until 2017, when it would start upgrading its M1A1s.

Army officials acknowledged to House lawmakers on Thursday that they recognize how important it’ll be to maintain Lima’s skilled workforce, which they think can be done over the interim with foreign military sales and, possibly, supplemental contracts. But modernization boss Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips put it to lawmakers this way: The Army has more than enough tanks, and most of them are state of the art, with an average effective age of 2.5 years. So with a smaller budget than expected, “The Army has had to make some tough choices,” he said.

His colleague, Lt. Gen. Bob Lennox, put it another way: “Do you build more Abrams tanks for the Army when you have enough? Do you now go out and do that at the cost of the network and aviation priorities that are higher for us? … These are some of the aspects the Army took into account in making this decision. This was not done lightly. It’s a very serious decision. We know there are ramifications, so it’s a choice of where you want to take your risk.”

But tank advocates had another card to play, in addition to “analysis:” What about all the lower-tier contractors? General Dynamics is a great big defense giant, and maybe it can endure the Lima shutdown. But what about the companies that make the thousands of others parts for the Abrams?

” This vital aspect of our national security industrial base is highly specialized and is not something that can just be turned off and turned back on,” said Ohio Rep. Mike Turner. “When production is stopped, those highly skilled workers will leave. And suppliers will dry up.” Idling the tank line would have ripple effects all down the tank economy, Turner said, and that would be “not only irresponsible but risky.”

We get it, the Army witnesses said. Phillips told Turner the Army “is engaged with industry partners to make sure we understand the concerns not just at the prime level, but at the sub-tier level. We understand the issues related to sub-tier vendors to take action to seek resolution and keep those business viable that are necessary [when] we restart that plant.”

So what does that mean? Good question.  It isn’t clear whether McHugh’s estimate includes the costs for the entire Abrams supplier network, or just GD Land Systems — or whether the Army will effectively pay vendors to sit around and do nothing just so they’ll be there when the tank upgrades resume. Those kinds of deals aren’t unprecedented in the world of defense contracting, as when the Navy, for example, pays shipyards to keep them from laying off workers while it works to award contracts later.

In Austerity America, however, it might not be politically kosher anymore for the government to pay a company just to continue to exist. So congressional tank advocates might continue pushing to keep the plant open and upgrading tanks, just as soon as they get their “analysis” confirming that will be the most cost-effective option.