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The M1 Abrams battle tank is the rock star of military armor, and is only made in one place: Lima, Ohio. But the Army says it is done with that tank: no new orders. Congress, though, appears intent on spending millions on Abrams tanks, arguing that cutting production is bad for national security and the economy. From member station WCPN in Cleveland, Brian Bull reports.
BRIAN BULL, BYLINE: This promotional video shows the Abrams ripping up the landscape and blasting enemy tanks from miles away. It's like a really good car commercial - that is, if the car weighed 70 tons and packed a 120-millimeter cannon.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
BULL: The Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio is a government-owned site run by General Dynamics. Product manager Cliff Barber weaves past robotic arms, laser-cutters and cranes to reach a row of rusty, orange hulks: some of the first Abrams tanks to be produced. They're waiting to be restored and upgraded at a cost of $6 million each.
CLIFF BARBER: These particular shells that you see here were old M1A1s built in the late '80s. And they're now going to become M1A2 SEP V2s, which is the latest U.S. configuration of tanks.
BULL: There are 800 workers here, down from 1,250 three years ago. Back then, the plant rolled out two Abrams a day. Now it's one every two days. The Army says ceasing production will save billions, as they develop a new line to be unveiled in 2017. But plant manager Keith Deters says idling production for three years doesn't make sense.
KEITH DETERS: The cost to shut it down - which there is significant cost there - the cost to bring it up, far outweigh the cost just to keep a steady state of minimum amount of tanks to flow through here.
BULL: Some Lima officials are troubled. In his office, Mayor David Berger is literally sitting in the dark.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR RATTLING)
MAYOR DAVID BERGER: We're without power, and we don't have - we're closed. Right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK.
BULL: On this stormy afternoon, a blackout has hit the city. Berger fears if the Lima plant is powered down, it could be for good.
BERGER: We don't believe that it's possible actually to keep in place the human resources, organizational resources, supply chain resources that can ultimately make restarting the plant possible. A temporary shutdown is actually a permanent shutdown.
BULL: After the Army didn't order new tanks last year, Congress approved $255 million to upgrade dozens of M1s through 2014. Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and pushed hard for the spending.
SENATOR ROB PORTMAN: You know, last year, I was able to play a role to ensure that the facility would stay open for this year. But we're now fighting the same fight for next year.
BULL: Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown also backs the spending, even if the Army says it doesn't need the tanks.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: We can make cuts to the Defense Department, and we need to. But it's not just jobs for Ohio, but it also contributes to our national defense in a long-term, industrial-base kind of way.
BULL: And Brookings defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon says let's not forget it's campaign season.
MICHAEL O'HANLON: So you can see Governor Romney, President Obama and congressional leadership talking defense policy, but what they're respectively really trying to do is maneuver an angle for that marginal Ohio voter who may actually think this issue is important enough to influence their vote this fall.
BULL: If the president vetoes the congressional tank funding, plant backers hope foreign tank sales can sustain production through 2017, though there's no customer quite as dependable as Uncle Sam.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull, in Cleveland.
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