In a move that surprised no one, the air and land forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee has voted to give the Army more money than it requested for heavy armor next year so that the service does not mothball the Lima Army Tank Plant. Lima is the only industrial facility in the nation currently integrating main battle tanks. Production at the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant ceased in 1996. Despite Lima’s unique status, though, the Army had proposed shutting the tank plant from 2013 until 2017, citing more pressing needs for scarce budget dollars. There are several compelling reasons why legislators were right to reject the Army’s plan.
First, the strategic planning guidance issued to the defense department in January by the president stressed the importance of maintaining a robust defense industrial base, including the capacity to quickly reverse decisions and regenerate capabilities in response to unforeseen emergencies. Closing the tank plant is antithetical to that guidance, because the service can lay away equipment but it can’t lay away people. The skilled workforce at the heart of the plant’s operation would disappear, resulting in a multiyear delay to reconstitute operations. Uncertainties associated with rebuilding the workforce make any estimate of how much the Army’s plan would cost unreliable. Many suppliers would face the same uncertainties as the plant itself.
Second, the Army has little credibility left when it comes to projecting future needs. It has spent the last decade fighting two military campaigns that its planners failed to anticipate, and once the campaigns began the service was repeatedly surprised by enemy tactics. Meanwhile, it canceled most of its next-generation weapon systems from Comanche to Crusader to the Future Combat System to the Ground Mobile Radio, squandering tens of billions of dollars. With a track record like that, legislators are right to suspect the Army doesn’t really know what its future needs will be (its decision to gut plans for future air defenses are similarly myopic).
Third, what’s left of Army plans for replacing current armored systems seems unlikely to survive future Congresses, much less future conflicts. The service says it wants to buy a new troop carrier dubbed the Ground Combat Vehicle that will cost $10 million each to cope with the threat of improvised explosive devices. But spending $10 million per vehicle to deal with weapons any rag-tag enemy can plant for a few hundred dollars sounds like God’s way of telling you you’ve lost the war, and Pentagon program evaluators say the real cost of the new vehicle is likely to be closer to $17 million (the same price-tag the Marine expeditionary fighting vehicle was sporting on the day it was canceled). There’s a good chance the Ground Combat Vehicle will disappear and the Army will keep relying on the Abrams tank and Bradley infantry vehicle for decades to come, so closing the only plant that makes the most survivable vehicle of all does not look smart.
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