President Trump Helped Save America’s Last Tank Plant
by Loren Thompson
President Trump’s visit this week to the Army’s sole surviving tank plant in Lima, Ohio is the first such presidential visit there since George W. Bush stopped by in 2003. President Obama never visited, and the depressed level of military spending during his presidency nearly shut the place down.
That is not an exaggeration. Wrongly assuming that Russia had ceased to be a threat to global security, the Obama administration cut the number of Army armored brigades to a record low of nine. Production of upgraded Abrams tanks at the Lima site fell to a single tank per month, and the Army seriously considered mothballing its only facility capable of producing the nation’s premier land warfare weapon.
As if all that were not enough, the Obama administration also killed a badly needed Marine amphibious landing vehicle that would have been built at Lima. The tank plant had been renamed the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in the expectation it would be turning out armored combat systems for both the Army and the Marines, but Obama’s defense team decided the Marines could do without an agile replacement for their slow moving, 40-year-old amphibious vehicles.
President Trump has reversed this litany of non-stop mistakes in managing the nation’s armored vehicle industrial base, increasing funding for upgrades and modifications to the Abrams main battle tank to over $2 billion in the Pentagon’s 2020 budget request. As a result, the number of employees at the Lima plant will grow from a low of about 400 two years ago to over a thousand by the end of next year. Prime contractor General Dynamics is busily recruiting and training a new generation of workers to keep the plant humming.
It isn’t just higher levels of military spending and congressional support from federal legislators like Congressman Mike Turner and Senator Rob Portman that saved the Lima tank plant. President Trump took a personal interest in the plant, reviewing the ranks of suppliers who feed components and subassemblies into the production lines at Lima for the Abrams tank and other vehicles assembled there.
So, he knows that boosting the plant’s output to one upgraded tank every day starting next year will create over a thousand additional jobs at supplier sites in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.
In fact, the General Dynamics factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania that builds components for the Abrams tank will see its employment increase by over 100% thanks to the funding Trump has provided. So, while the main reason for accelerating the rate of Abrams upgrades is to cope with a resurgent Russian military and China’s rise in the Pacific, there is a significant economic benefit to the president’s interest in heavy armor.
Equipping the military, and sustaining the capabilities required to do so effectively, historically has been the closest thing America had to a national industrial policy.
At least it can be if leaders in the White House and Congress use the military budget wisely. Which brings me back to the Democrats, who under Obama gave the Army a mere two days’ worth of federal spending per year for all its weapons programs. No kidding, the Army was getting less money for manufacturing armored vehicles than Americans spend each year on Halloween, and the long-term operational implications were about as scary. The Russians and Chinese aren’t standing still in their preparations for land warfare.
But the appeal of the Army’s last tank plant for President Trump was about more than military preparedness. Trump saw the Lima plant as a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with U.S. economic policy since the Cold War ended. Hardworking machinists and welders with highly specialized skills were being ignored by Washington policymakers as they chased fashionable economic ideas that favored the nation’s coastal states more than its industrial heartland.
Lima, like many cities in the Midwest, has been a victim of these economic policies. It once was a major producer of locomotives, buses and construction equipment, but that’s all gone now. In the process it lost 8,000 jobs and saw its population decline by a third (35,000 today versus 54,000 in 1970). Mothballing the tank plant, as the Obama administration was contemplating before Congress blocked such a move, would have delivered another devastating blow to the city’s struggling economy.
So for Trump, re-energizing tank production isn’t just about “peace through strength,” it’s about restoring the nation’s faltering manufacturing base that once earned America the title, “Arsenal of Democracy.” Unlike his predecessors, Trump doesn’t see any problem with considering the economic and industrial implications of weapons purchases. In fact, he thinks that policymakers who don’t take the economic consequences of their decisions into account are just plain stupid.
Having said that, the main driver behind work currently being performed at the tank plant is the rising threat from “near-peer” adversaries, meaning Russia and China. Russia has recently unveiled a new main battle tank called “Armata” that incorporates major advances such as an active protection system that can intercept incoming anti-tank rounds. The U.S. Army has barely begun equipping its own tanks with such a system, called “Trophy,” and has a long way to go before its armored forces are adequately protected against a new generation of anti-armor weapons.
The tank work that General Dynamics performs at Lima involves upgrading and modifying old Abrams tanks to meet the latest technological standards in a configuration called System Enhancement Package, version three, or SEPv3. This is just the latest in a series of Army upgrades designed to keep Abrams the most lethal and survivable armored vehicle in the world through mid-century. The Lima plant is the only facility left in America capable of performing every facet of this work, so it was inevitable that if Abrams was going to keep fulfilling its role as the nation’s premier land warfare combat system, there would be a need for the tank plant.
The plant is actually owned by the Army, and in the years since President Trump was elected the Army has begun pouring money into modernizing the production equipment at the site. Some of its capabilities are genuinely world-class, precisely what are needed to stay ahead of those near-peer threats.
President Trump understands the importance of the work that is done at Lima for the nation’s warfighters and for the workers in the local communities, which is why he didn’t make it to Davos this year but he will be in Lima.