WASHINGTON — The M1Abrams tank has survived the Cold War, two conflicts in Iraq and a decade of war in Afghanistan. No wonder: It weighs as much as nine elephants and it’s fitted with a cannon that’s capable of turning a building to rubble from two and a half miles away. But now the machine is a target in an unusual battle between the Defense Department and lawmakers who are the beneficiaries of large campaign donations by its manufacturer.
The Pentagon, facing smaller budgets and looking toward a new global strategy, wants to save as much as $3 billion by freezing refurbishing work on the M1 from 2014 to 2017, so it can redesign the vehicle from top to bottom. Its proposal would idle a large factory in Lima, Ohio, as well as halt work at dozens of subcontractors in Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states.
Abrams manufacturer General Dynamics, a nationwide employer that’s pumped millions of dollars into congressional elections over the past decade, opposes the Pentagon’s plans. The tank’s supporters on Capitol Hill say they’re desperate to save jobs in their districts and concerned about undermining America’s military capabilities.
So far, the contractor is winning the battle, after a well-organized campaign of lobbying and political donations involving the lawmakers on four key committees that will decide the tank’s fate, according to an analysis of spending and lobbying records by the Center for Public Integrity.
Sharp spikes in the company’s donations – including a two-week period last year when its employees and political action committee sent the lawmakers checks for their campaigns that totaled nearly $50,000 – roughly coincided with five legislative milestones for the Abrams, including committee hearings and votes and the defense bill’s final passage last year.
After putting the tank money back in the budget then, the House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services committees have authorized it again this year – allotting $181 million in the House and $91 million in the Senate. If the company and its supporters prevail, the Army will refurbish what Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno described in a February hearing as “280 tanks that we simply do not need.”
It already has more than 2,300 M1’s deployed with U.S. forces around the world and roughly 3,000 more sitting in long rows at a remote military base in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
The $3 billion at stake isn’t a large sum in Pentagon terms; it’s roughly what the building spends in a little more than a day. But the fight over the Abrams’ future, still unfolding, illuminates the major pressures that drive the current defense-spending debate.
These include a Pentagon that’s looking to free itself from legacy projects and modernize some of its combat strategy; a Congress looking to defend pet projects; and a well-financed and politically savvy defense industry with deep ties to both, fighting to fend off even small reductions in the budget now devoted to the military, a total figure that presently composes about half of all discretionary spending.
The M1 Abrams entered service in 1980 but it first saw combat during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when only seven of them were destroyed, all by friendly fire. In the past decade, however, as hundreds were sent to Iraq and later Afghanistan, a key shortcoming became apparent: Their flat bottoms made them surprisingly vulnerable to improvised bombs.
Since the primary purpose of tanks is to destroy other tanks, their usefulness in modern counterinsurgency warfare is limited, according to Paul D. Eaton, a retired Army major general who’s now with the nonprofit National Security Network.
Ashley Givens, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems, said the Army could refurbish all 2,384 tanks it needed by the end of next year and that instituting the freeze would allow it to “focus its limited resources” on the next tank, rather than building more of the same that “have exceeded their space, weight and power limits."
Since the start of 2001, General Dynamics’ political action committee and the company’s employees have given at least $5.3 million to the current members of the four key defense committees – the Armed Services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate – according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that was analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.
Kendell Pease, General Dynamics’ vice president for government relations and communications, said in an interview that “we target our PAC money to those folks who support national security and the national defense of our country. Most of them are on the four (key defense) committees.”
Pease denies trying to time donations around key votes, saying the company’s political action committee typically gives money whenever members of Congress invite its representatives to fundraisers. “The timing of a donation is keyed by (members’) requests for funding,” he said, adding that personal donations by company employees aren’t under his control.
On average, General Dynamics’ political action committee and its employees have sent about $7,000 a week to members of the four committees during the current election cycle. But the week that President Barack Obama announced his defense budget plan in 2011, the donations spiked to more than $20,000.
A second spike of more than $20,000 in donations occurred in early March 2011, when Army budget hearings were held.
A larger spike occurred the first two weeks of May 2011, a period in which the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 for a budget bill that contained money to continue work on the Abrams through 2013. Over this period, General Dynamics’ political action committee and employees donated a total of $48,100 to members of the four committees, with almost $20,000 of that going directly to members of the House Armed Services Committee.
During another two-week period last September, in which the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense handed in its conference report and Congress rushed to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep the government open, the company sent $36,500 to members of the four committees – primarily the House Armed Services Committee, whose members got $30,500. The final spike came the second full week of December, when Congress voted for the whole budget.
To help bring its corporate viewpoint to lawmakers, General Dynamics spent at least $84 million over the past 11 years on lobbyists, according to Senate Office of Public Records lobbying data. At least $13.5 million of this sum has been spent since the start of 2011 on more than 130 lobbyists, who pressed Congress to fund a variety of military and nonmilitary programs at the firm.
Those working for General Dynamics that specifically listed the Abrams tank as one of their key missions reported earning at least $550,000 from 2011 to the first quarter of 2012, according to the data.
Pease described the lobbying efforts as “education. . . . Shame on us if we don’t go and tell them (Congress) our side, because the Army is doing the same thing as we’re doing, having just as many meetings as we are.”
Center for Public Integrity reporter Zach Toombs and data editor David Donald contributed to this report.