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The Army's Abrams gamble

The Army brass has heard from almost everyone by now that there are reasons to worry about its plan to idle Lima, Ohio's tank plant for the next few years. Got it, the service's top leaders said last week -- but we're still doing it.

Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told House lawmakers they think National League-style small-ball foreign military sales can help keep body and soul together for General Dynamics Land Systems until 2017. That's when the Army plans to begin modernizing its M1A2 SEP Abrams tanks, and GD's plant and workers would ramp out of their production bathtub.

Leaders don't seem happy about this, but today's Austerity Army has little choice, as our eminent colleague Matt Cox reported:

"This is something that is of great interest; it's something that as I said we are looking at very hard," McHugh said. "We are willing to pursue any reasonable path to ensure that those particularly critical jobs remain viable."

Shutting down tank production is just one many cost-cutting strategies the Army is now proposing ... That said, few proposals create as much worry among lawmakers as one that might suggest that the Pentagon might not have enough M1 tanks to go into a major ground war with North Korea or even China.

The Army's M1 fleet is roughly 5,000 strong and according to Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno does not need to grow any larger right now.

"Our tank fleet is in good shape, and we are not going to need to start recap of that until 2017," Odierno told lawmakers, adding that the temporary shutdown stands to save $2.8 billion.

The Army would have to buy at least 70 M1s a year just to keep the production line open, McHugh said, "which is not just far beyond our fiscal ability, it's far beyond our need."

There's a case to be made that tanks today are the horse cavalry of the early 20th century -- kept around as much for nostalgia as for battlefield utility.  But as soon as you declare that conventional warfare is over and dispose of all your armor, North Korea invades the South and you've got a Larry Bond and/or Harold Coyle situation on your hands. This is exactly why the Army leadership is so keen to preserve "balance" in its force and why Secretary Panetta specifically mentioned Korea in last week's congressional hearings.

Although DoD officials usually are coy about the exact campaign plans that inform their force structure requirements, Panetta spitballed a rollicking airport novel: North Korea attacks the South (where, one hopes, the handsome young Army tank commander can hold the line) and, at the same time, Iran blocks or mines the Strait of Hormuz (where, one hopes, the handsome young surface warfare officer can hold off a small-boat swarm attack).

The military will be structured to deal with this scenario, Panetta said, and that means keeping tanks. But an overall doctrinal commitment does not guarantee business for GD or jobs for the engineers who work on these machines -- or that an idle tank plant would start back up when the Army now projects it would.

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