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 half a billion dollars in taxpayer money over the past two years to build 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 altogether. Republicans and Democrats for years have fought so bitterly that lawmaking in Washington ground to a near-halt.
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 said 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, told The Associated Press this past week.
Why are the tank dollars still flowing? Politics.
Keeping the Abrams production line rolling protects businesses and good paying jobs in congressional districts where the tank’s many suppliers are located.
The Abrams dilemma underscores the challenge that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faces as he seeks to purge programs the military considers unnecessary or too expensive in order to ensure there’s enough money for essential operations, training and equipment.
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.
The tanks that Congress is requiring the Army to buy aren’t brand new. Earlier models are being outfitted with a sophisticated suite of electronics that gives 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.
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.
Out of a fleet of nearly 2,400 tanks, roughly two-thirds are the improved versions, which the Army refers to with a moniker that befits their heft: the M1A2SEPv2, and service officials said they have plenty of them. “The Army is on record saying we do not require any additional M1A2s,” Davis Welch, deputy director of the Army budget office, said this month.
The Army’s plan was to stop buying tanks until 2017, when production of a newly designed Abrams would begin. 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 U.S. would allow the Army to spend its money on research and development work for the new and improved model, said Ashley Givens, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Ground Combat Systems office.