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Tanks a (half) billion

Abrams tank blog
Abrams tank in Lima, Ohio. Lawmakers have devoted nearly half a billion dollars in taxpayer money over the past two years to build improved versions. Military officials say they have plenty of them. (AP Photo/General Dynamics Land System)

Remember that gotcha moment in the 2012 U.S. election campaign?

It was during the final presidential debate, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney charged that under President Barack Obama’s watch, the U.S. navy is “smaller than at any time since 1917.”

“Well, Governor,” retorted Obama, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets … we have these things called aircraft carriers.”  Cue the laugh track.

Now history seems to be repeating itself as farce, but without the laughs.

Instead of horses and bayonets, the army is being offered $436 million in taxpayer’s dollars for some reconditioned Abrams tanks. And this at a time when the fiscally challenged U.S. has left Iraq, is exiting Afghanistan and has no appetite for a ground war anywhere we know of. 

Even the prospect of chemical weapons in Syria hasn’t set the 2,400 massive armored machines the army still possesses lumbering over the desert.

In fact, it’s saying “tanks, no thanks.”

But curiously, the fiercely cost-conscious Congress is insisting, in rare bipartisan accord.

“If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way,” army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno told AP -- aware that the military was under Congressional orders to cut about half a billion dollars (a few paltry million more than the tank funds) from its budget over the next decade.

The bottom line?

The defence plants are deeply embedded in the shaky economies of Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states that host some 560 contractors for the Abrams program, and would feel painful shocks in their communities if the program shut down. While corporations are offshoring their production lines and the major infrastructure projects Obama is pushing may not materialize, the military is still the backbone of the economy.

The U.S. spends more on defense than anything else except Social Security and its 2014 estimates show a projected $618 billion for defense spending -- topping $524 billion for Medicare.

“If there were no need for defense spending,” says analyst Kimberly Amadeo, “the budget deficit would be just $126 billion instead of $744 billion.”

Meanwhile, a new report from the Congressional Research Service says, “only a small proportion of U.S. workers is now employed in factories, as manufacturers have shifted low-value, labour-intensive production, such as apparel and shoe manufacturing, to other countries.” They warn of the possibility of more “hollowing out” to come.

The tanks may not end up on America’s foreign battlefields, but they’re already in the fight at home.

Olivia Ward has covered the 2008 and 2012 U.S. elections, and has written about conflict, human rights and politics from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.



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