(WASHINGTON) -- The Army's M1 Abrams tank has careened across battlefields in U.S. combat operations since 1980.
But now the 75-ton, American-made icon is at the center of the federal budget debate, with the Pentagon calling for production to halt and Congress determined to say no.
The Army says taxpayers could save $1.3 billion in the defense spending bill for fiscal year 2012 if lawmakers agreed to temporarily shutter the nation's only tank production facility in Lima, Ohio, for at least three years, starting in 2013.
The closure would be the first cessation of U.S. tank production since World War II.
But a bipartisan group of lawmakers, under pressure from the tank's producer, General Dynamics Land Systems, says the military has it all wrong.
One hundred thirty-seven House members argued Friday in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh that the proposal would dangerously harm the country's "industrial base," forcing highly-skilled workers to go elsewhere and adding unnecessary re-training and certification costs to the taxpayers' tab.
General Dynamics has told lawmakers that closing and reopening the plant four years later would cost $300,000 more than continuing limited production over the same period. Company officials say 250 workers at the Lima plant and thousands of others at more than 500 businesses in the tank equipment supply chain would be forced to find other work.
But with U.S. defense spending expected to top $700 billion this year -- twice the amount spent 10 years ago -- critics say programs such as the Abrams tank line shouldn't be immune from cuts to help trim the federal deficit.
Lt. Gen. Lennox said because the military's fleet of tanks is an average of just four years old, the military won't need technical upgrades or new equipment until at least 2016, when the plant could reopen.
The House Armed Services Committee, which is drafting the defense spending bill for 2012, has included $272 million to keep Abrams tank production going through Sept. 30, 2013. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and get signed into law by the president.
The funds would churn out roughly 60 tanks and keep thousands of workers on the job, supporters say.
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