Does Our Military Really Need More Tanks?

The American M1 Abrams Tank is one of the most formidable weapons ever fielded by any military in history. Entering service in the 1980s, the Abrams’ battlefield debut was the 1991 Gulf War, where the state-of-the-art tanks easily outmaneuvered and outgunned the Iraqi army’s own tank fleet. It has been a staple of U.S. military power ever since, receiving upgrades over the years.

Now the Trump administration wants to reinvest in the tanks in a big way in hopes of both boosting American power and creating jobs. Vice President Mike Pence and chief trade advisor Peter Navarro crafted a plan that would see production of the newest Abrams increase to 135 per year at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio. The facility previously cranked out only tank per month.

Last month, defense wonk Loren Thompson penned a piece for Forbes asserting that the White House plan would signal the rebuilding of America’s military and a major boost to Rust Belt economies. “Assuming that level of production is sustained in subsequent years, it would create thousands of direct and indirect jobs—not just in Lima, but in a supply chain scattered across other struggling industrial states,” he wrote. “So by speeding up production of modernized tanks, the White House plan benefits scores of industrial companies in states where the jobs are really needed.”

(It should be noted that Thompson’s thinktank, the nonprofit Lexington Institute, receives funding from General Dynamics, the company that designed the Abrams tank and was recently awarded the contract to upgrade the latest batch of tanks. General Dynamics is also a consulting client for Thompson in a for-profit capacity.)

Between the Army and the Marine Corps, the U.S. military already has more than 6,000 Abrams in its inventory—with more than half of them kept in storage. “When they talk about doing tank production what they really mean is we’re going to take an old M1A2, probably out of storage, and we’re going to upgrade it to the latest standard,” says James Hasik, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. “It’s still an expensive process. It’s still millions of dollars per vehicle.”

The money for the tanks the Army didn’t want was pulled from programs that it did want—notably training programs.
The price tag of these upgrades, as well as the logistical costs in both time and money spent moving the tanks around, has put the Abrams under more scrutiny in recent years. The Army spent several years asking Congress to temporarily cease production. In 2012, the Army’s then-chief of staff General Ray Odierno told lawmakers "We don't need the tanks. Our tank fleet is two and a half years old on average now. We're in good shape, and these are additional tanks that we don't need."

Odierno wanted to put more of the Army’s budget toward modernizing other weapons platforms and conducting more training exercises. "We are still having to procure systems we don't need," Odierno told Congress again in 2015, adding that the Army was still spending "hundreds of millions of dollars on tanks that we simply don't have the structure for anymore."

This was a fight Odierno would consistently lose until he retired in 2015. A big reason was Republican Congressman Jim Jordan, a self-described deficit hawk and a staunch Trump supporter. Jordan has spent years aggressively advocating for deep cuts to government programs—unless they’re weapons programs. Not coincidentally, the Lima tank plant resides in his district and General Dynamics donates generously to Jordan’s campaigns.

In a 2015 op-ed, Jordan and fellow Ohio republican Rob Portman touted the appropriation of “$120 million in additional funding for the Abrams tank program” in the Army’s 2015 budget. But there were no “additional” funds. The 2011 Budget Control Act—which Jordan was a key proponent of—capped the Army’s spending. The money for the tanks the Army didn’t want was pulled from programs that it did want—notably training programs.

Part of Odierno’s ambivalence toward the Abrams stemmed from experiences in Iraq. The tanks excelled during the 2003 invasions of Iraq as they rolled across Iraq’s wide open terrain and smashed Iraqi forces in the desert. But they proved less effective in the urban counterinsurgency battles that came to define much of the war in Iraq.

But after years of chasing terrorists and insurgents, American policymakers are now increasingly focused on the prospect of fights against professional armies as Russia flexes its military muscles and North Korea touts strides in its missile programs. In particular, some analysts fear the Russian army’s new T-14 Armata tank could outperform the Abrams.

Hasik says he approaches fears about the T-14 with some skepticism. In particular, whether Russia even has the resources to actually produce many of them. “It’s said to include some very significant advances in capabilities, but it’s an astronomically expensive tank. I mean the price tag is suggested to be somewhere around $10 million a copy, and at that price maybe you should just buy an attack helicopter.”

The Army is currently working on a new variant of the Abrams to match the Armata—as well as newer Chinese tank models. But testing isn’t slated to begin until 2021, to say nothing of production.

There’s no point in using M1 tanks to chase people who don’t have tanks in the same way there’s no point in sending F-16s to bomb people who don’t have an air force.
“If you try to make the business case that we need to remanufacture all the Abrams in the Army, then I’d ask the question of just how big a land war in Asia are you trying to get into?,” says Hasik. “Because we’re not landing on the Chinese coast regardless of how ugly that gets, and the Russian army is just not that big. And [our NATO allies] the Poles, the French and the Germans have pretty modern tanks as well.”

Among some defense industry lobbyists, the justification for manufacturing more American weapons is the chance to sell to foreign militaries. However, while American warplanes are popular abroad, the Abrams tank has never proved a particularly big draw for foreign buyers. Part of the reason is its powerful gas turbine engine is expensive to replace and maintain. As a result, many countries have decided to go with cheaper and low-maintenance models like German Leopard tanks.

But there are a handful of other Abrams users, mainly in the Middle East. The tanks have seen action in Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen, and notably, have fallen into the hands of American adversaries in Iraq. Several Abrams tanks briefly fell into ISIS hands after militants routed Iraqi troops in Mosul in 2014. Since then, other Abrams tanks have been photographed in Iraq flying the flags of Iranian-backed militia groups like Hezbollah.

A February report from the inspector general for the Iraq and Syria campaigns confirmed that “some U.S.-provided military equipment sent to support the mission, including as many as nine M-1 Abrams tanks, had fallen into the hands of Iranian-backed militias that fought against ISIS in Iraq.” General Dynamics has reportedly withdrawn a maintenance support deal to the Iraqi government due to its failure to stop Iranian-backed groups from seizing its products.

“There’s no point in using M1 tanks to chase people who don’t have tanks in the same way there’s no point in sending F-16s to bomb people who don’t have an air force—there are cheaper ways of doing that,” Hasik says. “So equipping the Iraqis with M1s I think should have been realized back then as a stupid idea, and I think now it’s hard to think of it as anything but.”

The plan depends on the continuation of armed conflict—and the constant threat of large-scale war—to be drivers for the American manufacturing economy. It remains to be seen how this tank manufacturing push will help American workers, but the renewed enthusiasm for tanks has clearly benefited the bottom line at General Dynamics. 

“Now that the first move has been made, the White House needs to make sure that the job gains become permanent,” Thompson argued. “Sustaining the higher rate of tank production in future years, perhaps through a money-saving multi-year contract, will assure that the economic boost to the Midwest endures.”
For Thompson and many others, a new arms race is the key to making America great again.

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