Editor’s note: This is a good article describing how manufacturing supply chains and worker skills are critical for national defense.
If you want to believe America is still the "arsenal of democracy" that Franklin Roosevelt described in 1940, you might want to avoid looking too closely at the U.S. manufacturing sector. China has become the world's premier industrial power, greatly out-producing the United States in everything from steel to smartphones. Germany's machine-tool industry outshines our own. No U.S. shipyard has built a commercial ship destined for international commerce in decades.
The economic consequences of America's manufacturing decline have been widely reported. What gets less attention is how industrial decay might impact national defense. Nobody really knows how a future great-power conflict might unfold, but Washington could be forced to use nuclear weapons to avert defeat if it can't mobilize quickly for conventional combat. President Trump is the first chief executive since the Cold War ended who seems to grasp what a waning industrial base might one day mean for our security.
On Thursday of this week, I toured the last remaining tank plant in America, located in Lima, Ohio. General Dynamics, a donor to my think tank and consulting client, flew me there to see where it assembles the latest version of the Army's M1A2 main battle tank. The cavernous facility contains 1.6 million square feet of manufacturing space. The Trump administration is investing a boatload of money in modernizing the facility, but it's clear the place was neglected for a long time after Washington declared victory over communism.
How neglected? The Army actually wanted to close it -- it is a government-owned facility -- even though it was the only surviving tank plant in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, the Obama administration was forecasting relaxed tensions around the world, and steadily withdrawing U.S. military units from Europe. Obama's predecessor had done the same. Up until the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, nobody thought Moscow was going to be a problem. So the Army figured it could save money by mothballing the plant and reopening it at some future date.
However, you can't mothball workers. If the plant actually had closed, they would have drifted away -- taking with them highly specialized skills like the ability to weld ballistic steel and titanium. Fortunately, Congress pushed back, appropriating just enough money for refurbished tanks to keep skills intact when combined with tank sales to foreign customers. But America's last tank plant was on life support. Production of tanks fell to one per month. On the day Obama left office, a grand total of 75 workers were assembling tanks.
It wasn't like that in the old days. Back when the Abrams tank was new in the 1980s, 3,800 workers were turning out 60 tanks per month at Lima. A second plant in Detroit was building 60 tanks per month too, using steel shells fabricated at Lima. Eventually over 9,000 of them were produced for the Army, the Marine Corps, the National Guard and allies. But then the Cold War ended. The Clinton administration ceased production of new tanks in 1996, and the Detroit tank plant closed the same year. Lima went into a long decline.
Work surged briefly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the plant focused on turning out Stryker wheeled troop carriers, with employment peaking in 2008 at 1,200. But the Obama years saw the tank plant experiencing the same erosion evident elsewhere in industrial America, with the workforce drifting downward to 441 employees in 2016. And most of them were not building tanks. Foreign sales of Abrams, upgrades of Stryker, and fabrication of Israel's Namer troop carrier kept the place going -- barely.
Enter Trump. The nation's 45th president made rebuilding the military and revitalizing America's manufacturing base two of his top priorities. The president's advisors soon realized that Lima was a place where those two goals converged. Not only that, but the plant's location in Ohio and the concentration of its supply chain in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania gave tanks unusual electoral salience. No Republican candidate has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.
So when Trump increased the defense budget in 2018, there was new money for tanks. The Army requested a full brigade's worth (87), Congress added more for losses in overseas wars, and there was a line item for the tank industrial base. In FY2019 -- the fiscal year begun October 1, 2018 -- the Army requested enough tanks to equip one-and-a-half armored brigades, a total of 135 tanks. That's quite a change for a facility that a few years back only had one tank on its assembly line. Employment at the plant has risen to 573, and is expected to exceed 1,000 soon.
The tanks being turned out are an upgraded version of older vehicles pulled from the Sierra Army Depot. The hulls are completely reconditioned, and then new equipment is installed, bringing the tanks up to the latest combat standards. That includes improved sensors, targeting devices, networking gear and power-generation equipment. The goal is to make the vehicle more lethal and survivable than any other tank in the world. The technical designation of the latest production variant is M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 3.
A fourth version is already in the works, because the armor and anti-armor capabilities of countries like Russia are advancing steadily. Tanks built at Lima during the Reagan era would not fare well against an industrialized adversary today without introducing upgraded electronics and new survivability features. It is anyone's guess whether the current improvements would be underway in Trump's absence, but the Lima plant -- officially called the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center -- is now a focus of interest for both the president and vice president.
In retrospect, it was shortsighted to ever entertain the possibility of shuttering the nation's only tank plant. Just as the Lima plant combines industrial, security and electoral priorities of the Trump White House, so its treatment reflected the very different philosophy of the White House during the Obama years -- a philosophy that seemed indifferent to the fate of America's heavy industries. The people I met at the plant were circumspect about discussing politics, but they clearly appreciate what Trump has done for the place where they work.
Their goal now is to keep the renewed funding for their products going so that the plant can be vigorously manned and revitalized. The Army is fully on board in the aftermath of Russia's Ukraine aggression, and it appears the White House is too. Key members of Congress such as Ohio's Mike Turner have weighed in repeatedly on the importance of keeping the Lima complex robustly funded. Hopes are high that the president's 2020 budget request will signal America's last tank plant is back in business for a long time to come.