Candice Miller for Congress, Michigan

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Lawmakers defend Abrams tanks

by Candice Miller on May 18, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

By Chad Selweski
Macomb Daily Staff Writer

State’s defense industry has lots to lose — jobs included

A Pentagon proposal to end all production of the Abrams tank, which could affect jobs at more than 200 Michigan defense industry suppliers, has sparked a bipartisan letter of protest from 136 House members to Army Secretary John McHugh.

Macomb County lawmakers Sander Levin and Candice Miller both participated in the lobbying effort.

The Army’s modernization plan for combat vehicles calls for a halt in U.S. tank production for the first time since 1941. A military budget bill currently before Congress would end production from 2013 to 2017 while improvements in the nation’s primary battle tank are designed.

The House members, led by Levin, a Democrat whose district includes the tank-production facilities of General Dynamics Land Systems in Sterling Heights, called on McHugh to continue a minimal schedule of 72 new tanks per year — the current M1A2 SEP version — during that transition period.

“The tank industrial base is not a light switch that can just be switched on and off at will,” said Levin, a Royal Oak Democrat who represents most of Macomb County. “Everyone needs to understand that it will take time and money to get this capability back if we let it go.”

After the tank plant in Warren closed two decades ago, General Dynamics’ specialty became upgrading tanks from the M1A1 category to the more advanced M1A2.

The tank retrofit program has been viewed as a cornerstone of Michigan’s defense industrial base for 30 years.

The program run by General Dynamics has engaged with 224 Michigan suppliers and subcontractors who received a total of $187 million in Abrams work.

Though the final assembly of the tanks is handled at the General Dynamics plant in Lima, Ohio, Michigan has far more at stake in the Pentagon decision than any other state.

The potential production shutdown comes just as Macomb County officials are trying to attract new companies to Macomb by portraying the county as the defense capital of the Midwest. Two-thirds of the defense contracts landed by Michigan firms are based in Macomb County.

“Allowing the Abrams production capability to decay will inhibit the nation’s ability to maintain the most modern fighting force in the world and to support the combat vehicle programs of our international allies,” said spokesman Pete Keating of General Dynamics, adding that a halt in production will jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs that support the Army’s future tank program and more than 560 businesses across the country.

“There’s no doubt to the reality of the impact it would have on our company and community. It’s pretty significant,” said Bruce Barron, president and CEO of Barron Industries in Oxford. “We would have to lay off a significant amount of people with unique skills and once production shuts down you can’t magically make it come back.”

Barron’s family-owned metal manufacturing company produces steel and castings for the Abrams tank program. The company has invested significantly in providing the type of capacity required to support the Army upgrades.

In the late 1980s, the tank plant, now converted to other uses, still employed 1,400 workers and played a part in manufacturing nearly 600 Abrams tanks per year. But the end of the Cold War brought dynamic changes to the Pentagon budget and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney pushed successfully for the closure of the facility known as the Detroit Arsenal.

Halting all production “could end up costing more in the long run and result in lost capacity and readiness,” the members of Congress said in their letter.

“The cost of shutdown and restart of Abrams tank production appears to be more than the cost of continued limited production,” they said. “Instead of reconstituting this vital manufacturing capability at a higher cost, it would seem prudent to invest these select resources in continued Abrams production.”

In addition to Levin and Miller, a Harrison Township Republican, other members of the Michigan delegation who signed the letter were Reps. Dan Benishek, Dave Camp, Hansen Clarke, John Dingell, Bill Huizenga, Dale Kildee, Thaddeus McCotter, Gary Peters, Mike Rogers and Tim Walberg.

The House is expected to take up the fiscal year 2012 defense authorization legislation at the end of this month.

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