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Don't target the M1A2 Abrams tank

06/05/12

Suspending production could be costly, hurt national security

Abrams tank photo gallery.

The M1A2 Abrams tank isn’t as loud as you might imagine for a nearly 70-ton mechanical monster – at least when it’s not firing its 120 mm cannon.

UAW members who modernize the U.S. Army’s main battle tank at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center (JSMC) in Lima, Ohio, hope that its distinctive rumble is not completely silenced here. The Army plans to suspend the program in the 2013 defense budget, a move critics say would actually cost taxpayers more money and jeopardize our national defense.

M1A2 Abrams tank
If the M1A2 Abrams tank program is idled, it is feared that highly specialized workers will move from the Lima area and will not be easily replaced when and if the program is restarted. Photos by Craig Mack/UAW Local 2147.

The UAW is working hard to make sure that the Abrams program is maintained so our troops continue to have the world’s best battle tank, the taxpayers’ interests are served and decent-paying jobs are maintained.  If the Abrams program is idled or discontinued, it is feared its highly skilled and highly specialized workers will by necessity move from the area to take other work to support their families. Once they move, restarting the Abrams program during a national emergency would extremely difficult.

“When you scatter the talent to the wind, how do you gather them back? said Craig Kiefer, president of UAW Local 2147, which represents the technical, office and professional workers at the plant.  “As one of my fellow engineers says, ‘They don’t have Abrams 101 in college.’ ”

Russ Clewley, president of Local 2075, which represents production and skilled trades workers, said, “The biggest fear is not getting those individuals back. There’s so much talent here, I don’t know how to put it into words.”

Beginning production in 1941, the Lima plant is the only functioning tank plant in the United States. UAW members rebuild Abrams tanks when they come in on rail cars from an Army depot in Anniston, Ala. They return to the depot with the most sophisticated weapons, survivability, communications, navigation and other systems in the world. The plant averages 13 Abrams tanks a month at the complex 85 miles southwest of Toledo. In addition to retrofitting the Abrams, UAW members manufacture the Tank Urban Survivability Kit (TUSK) for the Abrams, 10 variants of the Stryker light-armored vehicle, the Namer -Merkava armored personnel carrier for the Israeli defense forces and the SANG LAV 25 gun turret sold to the Canadian armed forces. The 1.6 million square foot facility is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and operated by General Dynamics Land Systems.  

The hull line at the Lima tank plant
The UAW is working hard to make sure lawmakers know what is at stake when they approve a budget for Fiscal 2013. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is a strong supporter of the program.

The Army plans to keep the tank in service until 2050. Technology has drastically changed it since it was introduced as the M1 Abrams in 1980 and isn’t going to get less complicated in the decades to come. Labor and management are working together to make sure the Defense Department and lawmakers know what’s at stake in the program.

“The Army has plans for the Abrams tank to be used for many decades,” said General Dynamics Plant Manager Keith Deters. “Where are you going to make these significant upgrades to this tank?”

New systems for the Abrams had to be quickly developed because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required tanks to operate in urban environments. These include seats designed to absorb the impact of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), enhanced night capabilities, counter sniper measures, and reactive armor tiles to thwart hand-held weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades fired at close range. These and other changes require a state-of-the-art facility that has extensive design, engineering and production experience that exists only at JSMC.

The Army’s plan is to save $1 billion by stopping M1A2 production for three years and let the Alabama depot handle some of the work done at Lima. The UAW, General Dynamics and key lawmakers like Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, say there’s too much danger in not being able to respond quickly to unexpected wartime needs. The cost of worker layoffs, shuttering facilities and mothballing equipment, combined with restart costs such as worker retraining and supplier recertification after a more than three-year break, totals between $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion, according to the Army itself and General Dynamics. It costs about $951 million to build a modest number of tanks for those three years, while sustaining the industrial base.

So far, the House has passed $181 million in funding, while the Senate Armed Services Committee had voted to spend $91 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on a funding request. 

“While we were successful in saving the Abrams tank program in 2012, we must continue the fight to preserve the production in 2013,” Brown said. “Ending the Abrams production line would jeopardize our national security, the safety of our men and women in uniform, and the highly skilled workforce in Lima – not to mention that eliminating this program would be more costly to taxpayers than continuing it. That’s why I will continue to push to ensure that the Abrams program remains intact for years to come.”

UAW Vice President General Holiefield, who directs the union’s General Dynamics Department, agreed:

“The Abrams tank program isn’t something that can be easily stopped and restarted. The work done here is highly specialized and would be exceptionally difficult to replace and retrain this workforce. We would face great difficulties if a national defense emergency should happen and we immediately need more tanks with the latest technology.”

Workers like Doyle Helton, who operates a water-jet cutting machine that uses a mixture of water and fine, commercial-grade garnet injected at 60,000 pounds per square inch to slice through steel, titanium and aluminum, worries that if the Army’s plan is followed, quality will suffer.

Doyle Helton
Helton: High quality must be maintained at all times.

“We are used to a high standard of quality and it must be maintained at all times,” said Helton, a five-year veteran. “It’s simply because other people will have to come in here and retrain. We have to pass an entrance exam just to be able to go to the (onsite) welding school.”

Randy Hatten, a process engineer with 11 years at the plant, said he still leans on more experienced engineers to help solve a variety of tasks. If the program is suspended or eliminated, some workers will be forced to retire all at once while younger workers will have to relocate to find suitable work. The experience needed to solve complex engineering tasks associated with building a tank is a finite quality.

“It solves a lot of problems,” Hatten said. 

What becomes of the struggling city of Lima and the surrounding region is also an issue. Lima, like a most cities in Ohio, has lost much of its industrial base.  Employment at the plant, which was at 5,000 during World War II, stands at 827 today, 85 percent of whom are UAW members. Nearly 57 percent of the workforce works on the Abrams program.

“Ohio cannot afford to lose these decent-paying manufacturing jobs,” said Ken Lortz, director of UAW Region 2B, where the plant is located. “We’re going to do all we can to keep this program going, not only because it’s right for Lima, the state of Ohio and these dedicated workers, but because it’s right for the taxpayers and – most importantly – the men and women of our armed forces who rely on the Abrams to maintain its position as the best tank in the world.”

What you can do: Call your Representative or Senator at the capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and respectfully urge them to maintain the Abrams program.   You can find out who your congressional representatives are by clicking here and e-mail them, too.

 

Vince Piscopo

 

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