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Congress as Enabler: The Pentagon Can’t Kill the M-1 Tank, Only an IED Can (Part Two)

We have around 2,300 M-1s stashed around the world and 3,000 M-1s surpluses in the Nevada desert, waiting for the next large country-to-country tank war that may never come.

(Photo: MATEUS_27:24&25 / Flickr)

Part of the Series

The Army wants to stop making M-1 Abrams tanks for a couple of years and redesign the tank for urban warfare. Once made specifically to fight cold war battles with Soviet tanks on the plains of Europe, the M-1 is a relic for the new type of urban warfare and the recent wars have show that they are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We have around 2,300 M-1s stashed around the world and 3,000 M-1s surpluses in the Nevada desert, waiting for the next large country-to-country tank war that may never come.

Enough members of Congress, however, do not want to stop the tank production in a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) plant in Lima, Ohio, that is run by General Dynamics. At around eight million dollars each, continuing to make more tanks to save jobs while we have 3,000 sitting in the desert is an expensive jobs program.

This is not the first time the M-1 program was steeped in the politics of weapons procurement, which often does not match what the military needs, but instead, what the politicians need to save jobs in their districts and states.

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I have been investigating the M-1 tank since the early 1980s, partly dealing with the politics of buying a major tank during the cold war, and partly from looking at the early testing scores that showed major problems with the effectiveness of the tank. In the late 1970s, two companies, Chrysler and General Motors, had competing prototypes of the M-1. General Motors had a large and traditional diesel engine in the tank, and Chrysler, which had tried and failed to develop turbine engine technology for cars and trucks for the commercial market, wanted to recoup their costs and put a risky and complicated turbine engine in their tank. The Army was ready to give the contract to General Motors, but politics intervened. In 1987, the Washington Monthly laid out the scene around the all-important decision of what tank was to be chosen:

On a July afternoon ten years ago, Lt. Colonel George Mohrmann sat at his desk on Capital Hill awaiting a phone call. As head of the Army’s congressional liaison office, he was ready to deliver a stack of sealed letters to members of Congress announcing the winning contractor in the multi-billion dollar competition to build the Army’s M-1 tank.

The two competing contractors, Chrysler and General Motors, offered a clear choice. Chrysler had built its tank around a radically different and unproven tank engine, the turbine; GM had used a more conventional diesel engine. The two tanks had undergone months of head-to-head trials at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
GM had won.

The Army, it seemed, was not going to risk adding the M-1 to its growing list of overly sophisticated weapons that cost too much and don’t work. “We were sitting there poised to deliver [the envelopes],” Mohrmann recalls. “The decision [to select GM] had been made. We were just waiting for the Secretary of Defense to be briefed.”

The call, however, was surprising. The Pentagon told Mohrmann not to deliver the letters. The next day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a whole new round of competition. A week later, Rumsfeld turned the M-1 tank program upside down. He mandated that the tank be redesigned to incorporate the turbine engine. Four months later the award-which promised to generate $20 billion in sales – went to Chrysler and the Army was on its way to getting a weapon suited more for a paved interstate than a battlefield.

… That isn’t another story about the Army’s incompetent bureaucracy. “You can blame the Army for a lot of things,” says Anthony Battista, a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, “but not for the troubles of the M-1.” Rather, it’s a story of how outside factors can overwhelm military considerations in the Pentagon decision-making process, how narrow interests – in this case the ailing Chrysler Corporation and, by a strange twist, the U.S. Air Force – can outweigh the need for a reasonably-priced and effective military. The M-1 was never just a weapon; it was also a bail-out package.

I remember in my first investigations of the developmental problems of the M-1, I spoke to one of two Army engineers who tried to fight the politics to keep the turbine engine out of the M-1. He believed that it would be a life-long problem with the M-1. These two engineers made a valiant effort to keep this engine from compromising soldier safety. They failed, and the Army bureaucracy, who secretly wanted the diesel engine, made examples of them and threw their careers away. The engineer who I talked is now driving a taxi and was blackballed in the industry.

Also See: Defense Companies Use Congress to Save Their Profits, No Matter What (Part One)

Though the Army tries to deny it, this politically selected turbine engine has been a headache throughout the life of the M-1, and there have been unsuccessful attempts by the Army to replace it. One of the biggest problems is the amount of fuel the M-1 sucks up. This voracious appetite for fuel, along with its increasing weight as the Army piled on more and more in the tank, requires the M-1 to have an unusually large round of nannie fuel trucks to keep it going. And the turbine engine takes up about two-thirds of the tank’s maintenance costs.

In 1990, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) (I founded and ran POGO for years and still serve on its board of directors), did a report on how much trouble this turbine engine caused:

As a result of the M1’s lack of fuel efficiency, the Army has had to increase the number of trucks that follow it. As of 1981, the Army had to add the following equipment to each M1 tank battalion:

  • 6 five-ton trucks
  • 6 tank pump units
  • 1 semi-tractor with 5,000 gallon fuel trailer
  • 6 tank pump units
  • 6 1.5 ton cargo trailers

With the introduction of the M1A1, the fuel situation has worsened. The Army has had to add another four 10-ton, 2,500 gallon fuel carriers, according to Maj. Mazzia of the Army’s Ft. Knox Armor School. This totals 128 support vehicles assigned to each battalion of 58 M1A1 tanks. While the M1 may be able to move quickly across terrain, it must always wait for these vehicles to catch up. Nonetheless, in the past, Army officials have seemed unconcerned about the M1’s fuel consumption: “We don’t even think about the fuel consumption as a [tank crewman]. We don’t care.” – Sgt. Kinney, hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, 1982.

Indeed, instead of combating the fuel consumption problem, the Army is making it worse: In an effort to standardize the fuel used by all Army vehicles, the Army will no longer use diesel to fuel the M1. Instead, a type of aviation fuel, which runs less efficiently in the M1, will be used by all Army vehicles. General Patton emphasized the folly of disregarding tank fuel consumption in his famous statement: “My men can eat their belts, but my tanks gotta have gas.”

If you think that it isn’t a big deal to drive those extra support vehicles, such as fuel trucks, in a war zone, take a look at this video of what IEDs do to those types of vehicles and decide whether you would want one of your kids to drive these nannie vehicles. There are long-term consequences of political intervention on military weapons procurement.

Now, the M-1 has way outlived its mission of fighting Soviet tanks and the Army, knowing that they will be needed weapons for insurgency fighting and urban warfare, wants to redesign the M-1. They found that despite that it is the largest and most armored vehicle in the Army arsenal, it has shown to be vulnerable to IED attacks, something that happens on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the M-1 was built to fight Soviet tanks face to face, most of its armor is in the front of the tank, leaving the back and flat underbelly of the tank at the mercy of the cheap, but effective, IEDs. There have been various discussions about the IED problem with the M-1 as our two most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan progressed. In 2005, USA Today reported:

The U.S. military’s Abrams tank, designed during the Cold War to withstand the fiercest blows from the best Soviet tanks, is getting knocked out at surprising rates by the low-tech bombs and rocket-propelled grenades of Iraqi insurgents.

Abram’s heavy armor is up front, however, insurgents sneak up from behind, fire from the rooftops above and set off mines below.

In the all-out battles of the 1991 Gulf War, only 18 Abrams tanks were lost and no soldiers in them killed. But since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, with tanks in daily combat against the unexpectedly fierce insurgency, the Army says 80 of the 69-ton behemoths have been damaged so badly they had to be shipped back to the United States. At least five soldiers have been killed inside the tanks when they hit roadside bombs, according to figures from the Army’s Armor Center at Fort Knox, Ky. At least 10 more have died while riding partially exposed from open hatches.

The ill-fated turbine engine was also so vulnerable to grenades that the Army needed an expensive retrofit program to try to armor and deflect attacks on the tank’s rear engine. Take a look at this insurgent video where a homemade IED launches the 70-ton M-1 tank into the air.

So, the Army decided, especially with 3,000 unused tanks sitting in the Nevada desert, that they needed to close part of their tank facility in Lima, Ohio, for a couple of years to regroup and redesign the M-1. (The effectiveness of successfully redesigning the M-1 is a topic for another day.) General Dynamics, which bought the tank division of Chrysler and runs the government-owned plant, reacted with howls of lost jobs and military vulnerability if the Army stopped making the M-1, even for a few years.

The Army held to this decision. According to Reuters:

Brett Lambert, the Pentagon’s top official for industrial policy, said his office is working with the Army to preserve the most critical and fragile industrial capabilities in the armored vehicle sector. Lambert said the answer is not to keep buying more tanks that the country does not need and cannot afford.

“We are operating in a budgetary environment that … is a zero sum game. For every dollar that we invest in technologies that are no longer needed … those are real dollars that we can’t invest in new technology and new factories,” he said.

Undeterred by their Army customer, General Dynamics called out the big dogs in Congress with the threat of large layoffs and deadly loss of national security. In an excellent expose, the Center for Public Integrity iWatch wrote a damning and thorough piece on how General Dynamics rallied the Congress for their cause while generously lubricating the Congressional will with plentiful campaign contributions. I usually don’t quote such large sections of an article, but they drilled to the bottom of this mess and produced a very disturbing, if not surprising, chart of the money flow to save this program:

The Pentagon, facing smaller budgets and looking towards a new global strategy, has decided it wants to save as much as $3 billion by freezing refurbishment of the M1 from 2014 to 2017, so it can redesign the hulking, clanking vehicle from top to bottom.

Its proposal would idle a large factory in Lima, Ohio as well as halt work at dozens of subcontractors in Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states.

Opposing the Pentagon’s plans is Abrams manufacturer General Dynamics, a nationwide employer that has pumped millions of dollars into congressional elections over the last decade. The tank’s supporters on Capitol Hill say they are desperate to save jobs in their districts and concerned about undermining America’s military capabilities.

So far, the contractor is winning the battle, after a well-organized campaign of lobbying and political donations involving the lawmakers who sit on four key committees that will decide the tank’s fate, according to an analysis of spending and lobbying records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Sharp spikes in the company’s donations – including a two-week period in 2011 when its employees and political action committee sent the lawmakers checks for their campaigns totaling nearly $50,000 – roughly coincided with five legislative milestones for the Abrams, including committee hearings and votes and the defense bill’s final passage last year.

After putting the tank money back in the budget then, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have authorized it again this year, allotting $181 million in the House and $91 million in the Senate. If the company and its supporters prevail, the Army will refurbish what Army chief of staff Ray Odierno described in a February hearing as “280 tanks that we simply do not need.”

… The $3 billion at stake in this fight is not a large sum in Pentagon terms – it’s roughly what the building spends in a little more than a day. But the fight over the Abrams’ future, still unfolding, illuminates the major pressures that drive the current defense spending debate.

These include a Pentagon looking to free itself from legacy projects and modernize some of its combat strategy, a Congress looking to defend pet projects and a well-financed and politically savvy defense industry with deep ties to both, fighting tooth-and-nail to fend off even small reductions in the budget now devoted to the military – a total figure that presently composes about half of all discretionary spending.

General Dynamics-Related Campaign Donations to Key Lawmakers

One-week periods from Jan. 1, 2011 to March 31, 2012

080512-2 chart

As I mentioned in last week’s column, Congress are enablers to the defense industry to keep their money and profits flowing, regardless of the effect on national security. The M-1’s history is a blatant example of how years of weapons politics between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Congress are not producing the weapons that our troops really need and not adding to national security for all the money that is spent.

Congressman Buck McKeon (R-California), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, despite a ruling from the Department of Labor, still wants defense companies like General Dynamics and Lockheed to send out warning pink slips to their employees, right before the November election, even though the unlikely cuts due to sequestration won’t happen until months after the election.

Members of Congress in both political parties have used the Pentagon for years as an ineffective jobs program while corrupting weapons procurement and enabling, not only the defense industry, but sympathetic DoD staffers and officers who are hoping for a good post-retirement defense job. POGO recently published an analysis that shows there is a recent trend where five large defense contractors actually had fewer jobs as they received more and more money. Not exactly an argument for the Pentagon as a jobs creator … more like profit creator for the companies.

It would take some political courage, but the current administration and the Army should stick to their decision and not allow the Congress to artificially keep an unneeded and ineffective tank to keep rolling off the production lines in Lima at $8 million a piece – only to be adding to the growing number of unused tanks sitting in the desert as remainders of another time. What type of political IED can take out the M-1? It is a tough question, but perhaps we need to ban defense contractors from giving money to the Congress because national defense is too important for these potentially deadly political games.

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