Army Changes Course on Tank Production (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Army has decided to stop fighting Congress and start buying tanks.

After years of challenging congressional add-ons to the Pentagon's budget for Abrams tank manufacturing, the Army in a surprising turnabout is seeking to accelerate upgrades for main battle tanks and is asking Congress to approve $367 million in 2016.

Army officials insist this is not a reversal, but simply a timing issue. "We've always had a plan to bring tanks back and to improve tanks," said Maj. Gen. Robert "Bo" Dyess, the Army's director of force development.

It has become an annual ritual for Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to criticize congressional add-ons for tanks the Army does not need, especially at a time when the service is financially stressed.

Lawmakers have sought to protect jobs and industrial facilities in Ohio and Alabama, where heavy combat vehicles are produced and refurbished. As recently as last week, Odierno reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military is financially burdened by programs it does not want but Congress mandates anyway. “Yes, we are still having to procure systems we don't need,” Odierno said. “Excess tanks is an example in the Army, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on tanks that we simply don't have the structure for anymore.”

Dyess said the Army decided to move up funding that it had planned for fiscal year 2019 to 2016. “We were always going to need to do improvements to the tank fleet. It was a matter of time,” he told reporters Feb. 3.

Tank upgrades are known as “engineering change proposals,” or ECP. The funding requested in 2016 would pay for costly components, like armaments, navigation systems, communications systems, training aids, engines and transmissions that would be used to upgrade tanks in 2017.

As to why the Army opted to fund the tanks sooner, the reason is for “overall modernization” purposes, Dyess said. “We're protecting science and technology [at a time when the Army] is limiting new developments. We are improving the things that we have,” he said. “That goes across all portfolios, including tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Stryker personnel carriers and aircraft.”

Army leaders had said in the past that they expected the Lima, Ohio, plant — operated by Abrams manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems — to stay financially viable until 2019 from foreign customer orders. But apparently that thinking was overly optimistic. “We had anticipated some foreign military sales,” Dyess said. He noted that much of the work at Lima is not just from tanks but also from Strykers, which the Army is upgrading with a larger double-V hull that protects the vehicle from buried bombs. So far, three Stryker brigades had been funded for the upgrade, and the 2016 budget includes money for a fourth brigade.

Davis S. Welch, deputy director of Army budget, said the decision also was influenced by industrial base considerations. “The concern of Congress was maintaining the industrial base. Certainly the

Army is concerned about the industrial base, too,” he told reporters. “There was a point in time when we no longer needed additional tanks. The tanks we had purchased and what we had in inventory were sufficient. The ECPs were planned for the out-years.”

Over the past three years, Congress added money for production of tanks the Army did not seek. The Army simply was too financially strapped to fund those ECPs, he said. “We had done an economic analysis. Under constrained budgets we could not afford to maintain the Lima tank plant. It was cost prohibitive.” By moving up the ECPs from 2019 to 2017, it helps keep the Lima plant open.” The $367 million request pays for “advance procurement of items in anticipation of doing ECPs in fiscal year 2017.”

It remains to be seen whether the Army’s move satisfies congressional critics. “I can't speculate on what Congress may or may not do,” Welch said.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, has led the congressional push to increase funding for Abrams tanks. “The industrial base cannot be turned on and off like a light switch," he said in statement following last year's release of the Pentagon's budget request. He noted the Abrams program is supported by nearly 900 suppliers, 75 percent of which are small businesses that could be in financial peril if Abrams work dries up.

Turner did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers rebuffed the Army’s contention that sales to foreign governments would keep the industrial base afloat until the Army surged procurement

in 2019.  In last year’s budget, Congress added $120 million for M1 Abrams tank upgrades, as well as $128 million for Stryker and Bradley work. 

During budget hearings in 2012 and 2013, Odierno insisted that the Army did not need new tanks or upgraded ones. The 2012 defense appropriations bill added $255 million for 42 tanks. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that the Lima tank plant is located in Rep. Turner's district. 

Topics: Combat Vehicles, Land Forces

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