May 12, 2011— -- The Army's M1 Abrams tank has careened across battlefields in U.S. combat operations since 1980.
But now the 75-ton, American-made icon is at the center of the federal budget debate, with the Pentagon calling for production to halt and Congress determined to say no.
The Army says taxpayers could save $1.3 billion in the defense spending bill for fiscal year 2012 if lawmakers agreed to temporarily shutter the nation's only tank production facility in Lima, Ohio, for at least three years, starting in 2013.
The closure would be the first cessation of U.S. tank production since World War II.
"We've got a very fit and complete fleet that we'll have at this time. And that's what has caused us to stop buying something that we no longer need," Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox, the Army's deputy chief of staff, told a Senate committee last month.
But a bipartisan group of lawmakers, under pressure from the tank's producer, General Dynamics Land Systems, says the military has it all wrong.
One hundred thirty-seven House members argued Friday in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh that the proposal would dangerously harm the country's "industrial base," forcing highly-skilled workers to go elsewhere and adding unnecessary re-training and certification costs to the taxpayers' tab.
"Our industrial base cannot be turned on and off like a light switch," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and co-signed the letter.
General Dynamics has told lawmakers that closing and reopening the plant four years later would cost $300,000 more than continuing limited production over the same period.
"It's always more expensive than the initial estimates," said Daniel Goure, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a defense industry think tank, of the Army's proposal.
"As for the workers, this is an extraordinarily experienced and specialized crew. You can't take 'Joe the Welder' out of the auto body shop and put him on the tank line in a day when they start back up," he said.
Company officials say 250 workers at the Lima plant and thousands of others at more than 500 businesses in the tank equipment supply chain would be forced to find other work.
"We simply cannot shut down this plant and expect them to wait around for it to start up again," said Rep. Michael Turner, whose district is adjacent to the Abrams plant.
But with U.S. defense spending expected to top $700 billion this year -- twice the amount spent 10 years ago -- critics say programs such as the Abrams tank line shouldn't be immune from cuts to help trim the federal deficit.
"At a time when the defense budget obviously needs to go south, not north, only a cynic would say it's predictable that Congress won't cancel a program the Department of Defense says it doesn't need," said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank.
Lt. Gen. Lennox said because the military's fleet of tanks is an average of just four years old, the military won't need technical upgrades or new equipment until at least 2016, when the plant could reopen.
The Army estimated closing the plant and reopening it later would not cost more than $800 million, while keeping the plant running at a minimal level would cost roughly $2.1 billion.
"The amount that we've been given, that it would take to keep those plants open, is extraordinarily enough of or put our scarce resources against something else," Lennox said of the funds.
The House Armed Services Committee, which is drafting the defense spending bill for 2012, has included $272 million to keep Abrams tank production going through Sept. 30, 2013. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and get signed into law by the president.
The funds would churn out roughly 60 tanks and keep thousands of workers on the job, supporters say.
"Politicians are so ineffectual that the only way they feel they can appeal to voters is by bringing home the pork," Wheeler said. "These tanks are eminently useful. I'm not against them. But we've got plenty, and many upgraded ones as well."