Editorial: Tank glut shows Congress is stuck in a pork barrel

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

Take a trip to the Sierra Army Depot in Lassen County, in the high desert between Susanville and Reno, and you can see a prime example of the difficulties in cutting the defense budget.

More than 2,000 Abrams tanks sit idle, yet we keep churning out more, which the U.S. Army says it does not need or want. The president's budget would end Abrams tank production. Yet year after year, members of Congress keep putting tank production back in.

At the same time, members of Congress squawk about upcoming automatic, across-the-board defense spending cuts ("sequestration"), due to take effect March 1.

In fact, you'd think the U.S. military was on the verge of collapse. Cuts, says Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would "drastically shrink the military and harm national security." Sequestration would deal a "crippling blow to our military," says Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Look, "sequestration," an across-the-board budget ax, is a bad idea. But a surgical approach is seriously needed.

The defense budget has more than doubled since 2001. Now that we are drawing down the military from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense budget should reflect our changed priorities.

The Army says it has more than enough tanks and wants to "focus its limited resources on the development of the next generation Abrams tank," rather than building more of the same – which, among other problems, are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as roadside bombs. Overall, the Army seeks less reliance on heavily mechanized armored divisions.

Yet Congress, at a cost of $8 million per tank, wants the army to build 280 more Abrams tanks – which Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno told Congress last year is "280 tanks that we simply do not need."

This is all about the lobbying swamp in the nation's capital.

General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the tank, has dumped millions of dollars on members of Congress at key points in the budget process. McKeon, for example, is a major recipient of campaign donations from the company – $56,000 since 2009.

According to a July 2012 report by the Center for Public Integrity on the Abrams tank, "the Army tank that could not be stopped," General Dynamics' political action committee and the company's employees have given at least $5.3 million since 2001 to members of the armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate.

The question for members of Congress should be, what should the U.S. military look like in a post-Iraq and Afghanistan era? Instead they're asking how they can protect the obsolete fighting machines of the past. The rows of tanks in the California desert prove that.

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