M1 Abrams battle tanks are the rock stars of military armor. They're made in only one place: Lima, Ohio. The Army says it's done ordering them, but Congress appears intent on spending millions for more, arguing that cutting production is bad for the economy and national security.
The Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima is a government-owned site run by General Dynamics. Product Manager Cliff Barber weaves past robotic arms, laser cutters, and cranes to reach a row of rusty orange hulks, some of the first Abrams tanks to be produced. They're waiting to be restored and upgraded, at a cost of $6 million each.
"These particular shells that you see here were old M1A1s built in the late '80s," Barber says. "They're now going to become ... the latest U.S. configuration of tanks."
There are 800 workers at the plant, down from 1,250 three years ago. Back then the plant rolled out two Abrams tanks a day. Now it's one every two days. The Army says ceasing production will save billions as it develops a new line of tank to be unveiled in 2017. Plant Manager Keith Deters says idling production for three years doesn't make sense.
"The cost to shut it down, which there is significant cost there, [and] the cost to bring it up far outweigh the cost just to keep a steady state of minimum amount of tanks to flow through here," Deters says.
Some Lima officials are troubled.
"We don't believe that it's possible ... to keep in place the human resources, organizational resources [and] supply chain resources that can ultimately make restarting the plant possible," says Lima Mayor David Berger. "A temporary shutdown is actually a permanent shutdown."
After the Army didn't order new tanks last year, Congress approved $255 million to upgrade dozens of M1s through 2014. Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pushed hard for the spending.
"You know last year I was able to play a role to ensure that the facility would stay open for this year," Portman says, "but we're now fighting the same fight for next year."
Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown also backs the spending, even if the Army says it doesn't need the tanks. "We can make cuts to the Defense Department and we need to, but it's not just jobs for Ohio. It also contributes to our national defense in a long-term, industrial base, kind of way," Brown says.
Brookings Defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon says the talk on defense policy from President Obama, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and the congressional leadership is careful campaign strategy.
"What they are respectively trying to do is maneuver an angle for that marginal Ohio voter who may actually think this issue is important, to influence their vote this fall," O'Hanlon says.
If the president vetoes the tank funding, plant backers hope foreign tank sales can sustain production through 2017, though there's no customer quite as dependable as Uncle Sam.