No More Tanks: Army Tells Congress to Stop Spending

Abrams tank

Whenever people call for cutting the military budget, the usual response goes something like  ”How can you keep the Army from getting the equipment it needs to fight wars?” Well, the problem with that response is highlighted today by this story from ABC:

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 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, 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.

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 that the champions for more tanks are Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. Rob Portman, two of Capitol’s Hill most prominent deficit hawks, as well as Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. They said their support is rooted in protecting national security, not in pork-barrel politics.

This is not uncommon. There were similar calls, I believe, during the requisition of the F/A-22 Raptor, and other military projects as well. The military knows what it needs; but what Congress spends on is not that. “Military spending” has little to do with actual national defense, and more with barrels and barrels of pork.

It is also a glorified jobs program; what Rep. Jordan and Senators Portman and Brown are after is not just the prestige of creating tanks for the Army, it’s about the jobs involved:

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, according to Mayor David Berger. 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,” Berger said.

Here’s the problem with that assessment: what Berger is ignoring is the money that Congress is taking from other Americans to give to the tank plant. It’s not all that different from welfare programs; the difference lies in how it’s being managed and who is receiving the benefits. If ordinary Americans were interested in tanks, using money they made from their jobs, perhaps. But right now, nobody—not even the Army—wants these tanks, so the “demand” is purely artificial. At best, this is nothing more than a corporate subsidy.

I do believe we need a strong national defense—but spending too much on the military, especially on things they don’t even want, does not make us stronger. It makes us weaker, by worsening our fiscal position and opening us up to other threats elsewhere. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that our greatest national security threat is our debt, and he’s stayed firm on that. Wasting money on useless pork projects, even those related to the military, will only exacerbate this threat.

It’s time for Congress to listen to the real leaders when it comes to our national defense.

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