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Army brass to Congress: We don't need new tanks

Mar. 7, 2012 - 06:56PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 7, 2012 - 06:56PM  |  

Army officials are once again on Capitol Hill trying to convince lawmakers that they do not need new M1 Abrams tanks.

Not only does the Army not need new tanks, it doesn't need to upgrade the ones it has for another few years, Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, told lawmakers Wednesday during a hearing of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

It is one of the most modernized platforms in the Army and has an average age of two-and-a-half-years old, Army Secretary John McHugh said.

The Army plans to finish out its Abrams buy in 2014 and then not begin upgrading its current fleet until 2017.

The Army tried to make the same argument last year, but Congress did not agree. In the 2012 defense appropriations bill, it provided an additional $255 million to buy 42 more tanks. The money was intended to keep the General Dynamics Land Systems' production line open in Lima, Ohio.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said that last year there was broad support on the committee to keep the Abrams production line open.

"Can you tell me how the Army sees this now?" he asked McHugh and Odierno.

McHugh said he just approved the execution of the 2012 Abrams funds. That money will buy between 42 and 44 tanks, which is fewer than needed to keep the production line going.

"In order to sustain the Abrams line at Lima, you have to produce at least 70 tanks a year. So, while the money provided is substantial, it will not fill the production gaps," McHugh said.

Army analysis found that it would cost $600 million to $800 million to close and later reopen the production line versus the nearly $3 billion it would take to keep it up and running during that same time, McHugh said.

Not only does the Army not need the extra tanks now, it likely will have even less use for them once it completes a force mix study currently underway, Odierno said.

That study is determining how many infantry, Stryker and heavy brigades the Army will need in the future. The study could recommend further reductions in brigade combat teams beyond the eight brigades the Army already plans to cut.

"As we go through this force structure review, we actually might reduce the requirement for heavy capabilities and that's something that we have to make sure we take a look at," Odierno said.

As for the other types of brigades, Odierno said, "I'll tell you that right now the Stryker brigades are really not under consideration, because they're found to be a very flexible capability that we want to sustain."

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., asked whether the Army should keep production lines open by buying the National Guard and Reserve more M1A2 System Enhancement Program tanks, a more advanced variant than the M1A1 model.

Odierno said it could be beneficial for everyone to have a SEP tank, but added that the M1A1 is a "very good tank."

The M1A1 is not as technically complex, which can make it easier to operate and requires less training, a plus for the Guard and Reserve, who have less time to train, Odierno said.

"Again, we're in the process of reducing force structure. My guess is we will reduce some of our heavy requirements, so there will be tanks moving from the active to the reserve component probably. We have to continue to do that analysis before we make the determination of whether we need more SEP tanks."

Dicks asked if the Army's analysis considered the industrial base implications and the knowledge and skills that could be lost by closing down that factory for three years.

"We are concerned about those high-end jobs," McHugh said, adding that the Army is working to fill in some of those production gaps with foreign military sales.

Odierno said several countries are considering buying new Abrams tanks, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and "a few others."

U.S.-Egyptian co-production of the M1A1 Abrams tank began in 1988. Some of the tank's components are manufactured at an Egyptian facility, while the remaining parts are produced in the U.S. and then shipped to Egypt for final assembly.

Last July, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a potential sale to Egypt of 125 M1A1 tank kits for an estimated cost of $1.3 billion.

Saudi Arabia already has a large fleet of Abrams tanks.

Sales to both countries have come under increased scrutiny because of events related to the Arab Spring.

Members of Congress have expressed concerns about selling more tanks to Egypt while that country's government is still in transition.

Last February, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, led an armored intervention into neighboring Bahrain to help its government end growing popular unrest.

The German government faced widespread criticism last July when news broke that it planned to sell Saudi Arabia 200 German-made Leopard tanks, with critics citing Saudi Arabia's actions to suppress protests in Bahrain.

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