Tanks: ‘Something of a relic’

The end of the tank? The Army says it doesn’t need it, but industry wants to keep building it.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, conducted a joint air mobility exercise with Airmen from the 21st Airlift Squadron, 60th Air Mobility Wing, Travis Air Force Base, Cali., Jan. 13-17, 2014, at Fort Carson’s Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group airfield. The exercise was held in order to validate air loads on a C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft as part of the Global Response Force mission to rapidly deploy worldwide in support of the XVIII Airborne Corps. The joint exercise also focused on proper tie-down procedures of equipment, which included an M1A2 SEP (V2) Abrams Main Battle Tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Grady Jones, 3rd ABCT Public Affairs, 4th Inf. Div.)This article oversimplifies a lot of things about tanks and jumps to a lot of conclusions about their obsolescence, but it does contain a lot of interesting information about the state of the armor-building industry.

BAE:

The York facility was readying for the boost, even installing — at an $8 million price tag — a hulking high-speed, high-precision machine able to mill, cut and thread almost any material, from steel to aluminum to alloys. The company had hired younger employees, bringing the age of its average plant employee down to 44, seeking to build a workforce to take over once older employees retired.

BAE — and the York facility — suffered a major blow when the Army canceled the Future Combat Systems program. The vehicles portion of the program, which was to be shared between BAE and General Dynamics, would have cost more than $87 billion, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Since then, the military has backed off vehicle refurbishment, too. The York operation has cut about half of its employees, the average age of plant workers has surged to 54 and lines are sitting idle at the facility, tucked into a swath of farmland. In December, BAE started another round of layoffs.

General Dynamics in Lima, Ohio, is in a similar boat:

Just like the Bradley plant, the Abrams factory bustled over the past decade. At its peak in early 2009, the plant, which is owned by the government but operated by General Dynamics, was pushing 21 / 2 refurbished tanks out the door each day.

For the first time in its history, it diversified, producing not just upgraded Abrams tanks but also Stryker vehicles and a prototype of an expeditionary fighting vehicle (able to travel by sea and by land), which was built for the Marine Corps but later canceled…

But today the facility is down to about 500 employees from a peak of 1,220. Following union rules, it has laid off the newest employees and has worked its way back to those hired in 2005, said Keith Deters, director of plant operations.

This isn’t a problem. Neither is the lack of big guns in the Navy. Or the shortage of carriers to keep up with deployment needs. It’s not a problem.

Unless it becomes a problem. Then it’s catastrophic.

Comments

  1. Yep, good article — though it’s not as dramatic as all that unless you happen to work at one of the plants.

    The reality is that the US Army’s armored fleet is the most modern it has ever been in its history. During the war in Iraq, the Army used the windfall budgets to completely upgrade and digitize its fleet to M1A2 SEP v2 / M1A1 AIM SA and M2A3/M2A2 ODS-SA. The average age of a US tank at this point is about 3 years, and the average Bradley is about 4 years. The upgraded vehicles were produced in massive quantity during the war — probably faster than needed — and so when the Army met its requirement there was nothing else to be done. That boom and bust is not new in the vehicle industry — same thing happened after the end of the Cold War which caused the consolidation of FMC and BMY and resulted in the closure of the huge combat vehicle plant in Santa Clara CA where the Bradley and M113 were originally manufactured.

    The Army does have upgrade programs ongoing for both the tank and Bradley — but they were slow-rolled in getting started because of FCS and later GCV. As a result, there wasn’t a new version of the vehicles ready to transition to production when current production ended, and it will be several years before the new upgrades are ready.

    In the meantime, there’s an opportunity to right size some industrial facilities. The Army has the tank plant at Lima, but also a massive refurb capacity for tanks in Alabama. Same for Bradley with the depot in Texas. They don’t all perform the same tasks but together it’s a lot more capacity than the Army needs especially with the force size shrinking.

    The challenge of which sites get closed or resized is a political and economic one — not a question of military capability. And unfortunately every dollar spent on continuing to build an older version of a vehicle is one that isn’t spent on increasing capability, and in today’s budget environment you can’t afford both.

    What would you rather lose — the ability to build the current generation vehicle today, or the ability to design and build the next generation tomorrow? That’s the kind of choice we’re facing, but those tradeoffs seldom get mentioned in the “save our factories” articles.

    (And by the way, the article doesn’t mention that BAE in York was recently awarded the production contract for the PIM howitzer upgrade, or that both GD and BAE are competing for the M113 replacement program called Armored-Multi-Purpose Vehicle, which is supposed to produce around 3,000 vehicles and will be a huge windfall to the winner.)

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