With key authorizing and appropriating panels in the House of Representatives having now marked up their versions of the fiscal 2013 defense budget, it appears the Army’s plan to shut down most of the armored-vehicle production in the United States is not going to be approved. Media coverage of the issue has focused mainly on the Ohio factory where the iconic Abrams tank is assembled, but all the other combat vehicles used in armored brigades are built at a different plant in York County, Pennsylvania. That includes the service’s most capable armored troop carrier, its principal piece of self-propelled artillery, and its recovery vehicle for retrieving disabled systems from the line of fire. Army leaders want to save money at the Pennsylvania plant by stopping work on the Bradley fighting vehicle, the program on which two-thirds of the 1200 workers at the site are currently employed.
It is hard to follow the logic of the Army’s plan. The plan calls for ceasing Bradley production over a three-year period, and then gearing back up again. But that means BAE Systems, the company that runs the plant, would need to start reconstituting the workforce and supplier base within months after the shutdown was completed, because it takes a long time to secure all the necessary skills and production inputs. Planners can’t simply assume that highly-trained workers will still be available after a prolonged gap in production — some will retire, others will move on to new jobs. Specialized suppliers may go out of business, or scale back to a level where they face their own workforce issues. The company figures it will cost $750 million to stop and restart, which would wipe out most of the potential savings.
Another concern is the impact that shutdown of the Bradley line would have on other vehicles built at the plant. Those currently include the recovery vehicle and an upgraded version of the Paladin self-propelled howitzer. Production of the recovery vehicle is supposed to cease temporarily too, leaving the artillery vehicle to carry almost all of the overhead associated with running the plant. That is likely to raise its cost at a time when the Army has few options for sustaining battlefield firepower. It also would negatively impact the cost of future programs, such as a proposed replacement of Vietnam-era troop carriers. Many analysts believe the lowest-cost answer to that requirement is to build more Bradleys — a solution that underscores the drawbacks of disbanding the Bradley workforce and supplier base.
A further worry is the way in which the Army’s plan would worsen the already fragile state of the industrial base for military vehicles. When the defense department needed to surge production of armored trucks for warfighters in Iraq, planners discovered there was only one plant left in America that could make steel of the necessary strength, and that plant — which was in Pennsylvania too — was already operating at full capacity. The Army doesn’t appear to have learned much from this experience. If all the initiatives contained in its current investment strategy are implemented, it will soon cease production of tanks, infantry vehicles, medium trucks and humvees. It’s hard to imagine how the resulting industrial base could be less ready for a military campaign requiring quick production of ground vehicles.
Rather than following this risky path, Army leaders need to recognize the signal Congress is sending and fashion a plan for sustaining some level of Bradley production at the Pennsylvania plant. The additional vehicles can be used to bring National Guard fleets up to the same standards as the active-duty force, recognizing that the Guard may be called on more in the future as the active force shrinks. Or they can be used to flesh out restructured brigade combat teams. What the service doesn’t need to do, though, is further weaken a unique vehicle industrial base when there are no assurances its plans for developing next-generation vehicles will come to fruition.
Find Archived Articles: