WASHINGTON — Built to dominate the enemy in combat, the Army’s hulking Abrams tank is proving equally hard to beat in a budget battle.
Lawmakers from both parties have devoted nearly a half-billion dollars in taxpayer money over the last two years to building 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.
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, said last week.
Why are the tank dollars still flowing?
Keeping the Abrams production line rolling protects businesses and good-paying jobs in congressional districts where the tank’s many suppliers are located.
If there’s a home of the Abrams, it’s politically important Ohio. The nation’s only tank plant is in Lima.
So it’s no coincidence the champions for more tanks are Ohio’s Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana) and GOP Sen. Rob Portman, two of Capitol’s Hill most prominent deficit hawks, as well as Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. They said their support is rooted in national security, not pork-barrel politics.
“The one area where we are supposed to spend taxpayer money is in defense of the country,” said Mr. Jordan, whose district in the northwest part of the state includes the tank plant.
The Abrams dilemma underscores the challenge Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faces as he seeks to purge programs to ensure there’s enough money for essential operations, training, and equipment.
Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, faces a daunting task in persuading members of Congress to eliminate or scale back projects favored by constituents.
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,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Congressional backers of the Abrams upgrades view the vast network of companies, many of them small businesses, that manufacture the tanks’ materials and parts as a critical asset that has to be preserved.
The money, they say, is a modest investment that will keep important tooling and manufacturing skills from being lost if the Abrams line were to be shut down.
The Lima plant is a study in how federal dollars affect local communities, which in turn hold tight to the federal dollars.
The facility is owned by the federal government but operated by the land systems division of General Dynamics, a major defense contractor that spent close to $11 million last year on lobbying, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The plant is Lima’s fifth-largest employer with close to 700 employees, down from about 1,100 just a few years ago, Mayor David Berger said.
But the facility is still crucial to the local economy.
“All of those jobs and their spending activity in the community and the company’s spending probably have about a $100 million impact annually,” Mr. Berger said.
Mr. Jordan, a House conservative leader who has pushed for deep reductions in federal spending, supported the automatic cuts known as the sequester that require $42 billion to be shaved from the Pentagon’s budget by the end of September.
The military also must absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years, as required by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
But Mr. Jordan said it would be a big mistake to stop producing tanks.
“Look, [the plant] is in the 4th Congressional District and my job is to represent the 4th Congressional District, so I understand that,” he said. “But the fact remains, if it was not in the best interests of the national defense for the United States of America, then you would not see me supporting it like we do.”
The tanks Congress is requiring the Army to buy aren’t brand- new.
Earlier models are being outfitted with sophisticated electronics that give the vehicles better microprocessors, color flat-panel displays, a more capable communications system, and other improvements.
The upgraded tanks cost about $7.5 million each, according to the Army.
Out of nearly 2,400 tanks, roughly two-thirds are the improved versions.
The tank fleet, on average, is less than 3 years old. The Abrams is named after Gen. Creighton Abrams, one of the top tank commanders during World War II and a former Army chief of staff.
The Army’s plan was to stop buying tanks until 2017, when production of newly designed tanks would start.
Orders for Abrams tanks from U.S. allies help fill the gap created by the loss of tanks for the Army, according to service officials. But congressional proponents of the program feared there would not be enough international business to keep the Abrams line going.
This pause in tank production for the United States would allow the Army to spend its money on research-and-development work for the new and improved model, said Ashley Givens, a spokesman for the Army’s Ground Combat Systems office.
The first editions of the Abrams tank were fielded in the early 1980s. Over the decades, the Abrams supply chain has become embedded across the country.
General Dynamics estimated in 2011 that more than 560 subcontractors in the United States were involved in the Abrams program and they employed as many as 18,000 people.