Is Congress right to ignore the military on tank purchases?


From Huffington Post by the Associated Press:

Lawmakers from both parties have devoted nearly half a billion dollars in taxpayer money over the past two years to build improved versions of the 70-ton Abrams.

But senior Army officials have said repeatedly, “No thanks.”

It’s the inverse of the federal budget world these days, in which automatic spending cuts are leaving sought-after pet programs struggling or unpaid altogether. Republicans and Democrats for years have fought so bitterly that lawmaking in Washington ground to a near-halt.

Yet in the case of the Abrams tank, there’s a bipartisan push to spend an extra $436 million on a weapon the experts explicitly say is not needed.

“If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, told The Associated Press this past week.

Why are the tank dollars still flowing? Politics.

Keeping the Abrams production line rolling protects businesses and good paying jobs in congressional districts where the tank’s many suppliers are located.

The article specifically highlights support for the production line by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). The Congressman’s position, which is quoted in the article as being related to national defense instead of the budget, is directly opposed to what many outside of Congress are saying:

Federal budgets are always peppered with money for pet projects. What sets the Abrams example apart is the certainty of the Army’s position.

Sean Kennedy, director of research for the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste, said Congress should listen when one of the military services says no to more equipment.

“When an institution as risk averse as the Defense Department says they have enough tanks, we can probably believe them,” Kennedy said.


This pause in tank production for the U.S. would allow the Army to spend its money on research and development work for the new and improved model, said Ashley Givens, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Ground Combat Systems office.

The article doesn’t explain the full details of the situation until midway through, but the short version is the plant in Congressman Jordan’s district was going to shut down for three years, than come back to full strength in 2017. Senator Portman stated his opposition was related to the inefficiency of “mothballing” a plant for three years, causing temporary (and relatively high) unemployment for employees of the plant. The Army plans on doing three years of research and development prior to 2017 for a more advanced Abrams tank, then refurbish old tanks with technological upgrades.

Surprised by Rep. Jordan’s opposition to this, I reached out to his press office with the following questions:

1. The Congressman’s position is in opposition of the military leadership regarding Abrams tanks — they say the military doesn’t need them, the Congressman says the military does. Where does the Congressman think these leaders erred with regards to national defense?

2. The Congressman was quoted as saying if he did not think the spending was a worthwhile expenditure, he would not take his current position. What is the reason for this — his dedication to balancing the budget, his belief that government spends less efficiently than private citizens, or something else entirely?

3. The Congressman was quoted as saying “The one area where we are supposed to spend taxpayer money is in defense of the country.” Is this an accurate representation of the Congressman’s views on federal spending for things like roads, social welfare, Medicare, Social Security, and education?

According to Rep. Jordan’s spokesperson, the Congressman is not standing against the military – rather, the Army leadership. “We would characterize it more specifically as the position of Army leadership as opposed to the entire military.  The Army National Guard would welcome (and deserve) the opportunity to upgrade their M1A1 tanks into the M1A2 SEP vehicles being used by guardsmen today in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

Interestingly, the spokesperson said the Congressman’s position would save taxpayers money. “Stopping and restarting the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, OH would cost an estimated $1.6 billion (including cost of shutdown, restart, worker training, etc.) with no refurbished tanks to show for it.  The cost to keep the facility open at minimal production level over four years is estimated at about $1.4 billion, with approximately 280 tanks being refurbished and available for Army or Army National Guard use.

Simply put, it is cheaper and smarter to slow down production and keep the plant open than to shut it down and attempt to restart it in a few years.  This doesn’t even go to mention the roughly 900 suppliers that would be impacted, many of them tied so closely to tank production that they would shut down.  Any supplier shutdown would complicate the JSMC shutdown/restart process as well.  The Army neglected to account for this costly, complicating factor in their calculation as well.”

Regarding the quote by the Associated Press, the spokesperson said simply, “providing for the common defense is one of the few responsibilities of the federal government that is specified in the Constitution.  The modern M1A2 SEPs are more lethal, more survivable, and cheaper to operate.  There is only one facility in America that does what the JSMC does.”

When it comes to military expenditures, it is a somewhat common complaint among fiscal hawks that Congress requires spending the various branches do not want. Often, this is done for employment reasons – never mind that military spending is government spending, apparently – and re-election. In this case, however, Rep. Jordan’s comments offer clarification that is fiscally sound.