Factory tour shows how an Abrams comes to life

By Craig M. Rader DLA Land and Maritime Public Affairs

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A lot has changed at the Lima Army Tank Plant since the first combat vehicles rolled off its assembly line nearly 75 years ago. During World War II, the Ohio installation had more than 5,000 employees and processed tens of thousands of vehicles for overseas shipment.

The plant, renamed the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center (JSMC) in 2004, now employs just a fraction of that workforce but its mission remains unchanged – supporting warfighters through the production of armored combat vehicles and equipment.

The JSMC opened its doors to a small group of Defense Logistics Agency Land and Maritime associates from nearby Columbus during a factory tour May 16-17. The two-day tour included manufacturing and production presentations and a firsthand look at the rigorous testing each vehicle experiences before final delivery.

The members of Land and Maritime’s Strategic Acquisition Programs Directorate (SAPD) usually spend their days reviewing technical contract data or planning operational logistics support from their offices at Defense Supply Center Columbus. At JSMC, the group watched through safety goggles as workers fabricated pieces of metal into parts that would eventually make their way onto a battlefield.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do this tour,” said Carol Bucher, an SAPD contracting officer at DLA Land and Maritime. “It reinforced the importance of what we do to support the warfighter. I learned a great deal about the manufacture of weapons systems and I have profound respect for the amount of work and care that goes into that production.”

Over the years, the facility had to adapt to the changing landscape of global conflict, according to Edward Yeaste, a JSMC tour coordinator. He said following the Second World War, it served as a storage facility for returning combat vehicles. Production capacity accelerated and industrial operations resumed during the buildup prior to the Korean War, then slowed again during the following years.

In the early 80’s the plant produced its first M1 Abrams tank and continues to produce and repurpose variants of the M1 family of Main Battle Tanks (MBT) today. The factory also manufactures components of the eight-wheeled Stryker armored combat vehicle. In recent years, production numbers have fallen due to decreased global demand.

“I have a renewed appreciation for the complexities involved in maintaining an industrial base with a skilled workforce,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Danny Ewing, a Performance Based Logistics program manager at DLA Land and Maritime. “As someone who wears the uniform while also working in a logistics support environment, it’s incredibly motivating to stand on a factory floor and see up close the levels of talent and commitment of the men and women who build these vehicles.”

Much of that commitment stems from the close personal connection many of the workers have with the military. Yeaste said more than a third of the staff at JSMC are military veterans. An even higher percentage have family members who have or currently serve in the Armed Forces.

The tour followed the assembly process of an Abrams MBT from start to finish, as production begins with used tank hull and turrets delivered via rail from a storage depot in Anniston, Ala. The parts are sand blasted and repainted before reassembly into what will become an ‘as-good-as-new’ refurbished tank.

Workers in white overalls and yellow hard hats smiled and nodded as they rode by on adult-sized tricycles. The bikes are a necessity inside the one million square foot main production building. 

At one stop along the tour, the group from DLA learned the various ways titanium alloy sheets get sliced with computer-driven plasma cutters. At 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the electric arc cutter’s flame is more than twice as hot as the sun’s surface. The high tolerance metal is an essential part of the shielding around the Abrams hull, turret, and tracks.

The reinforced tracks allow the Abrams to travel smoothly at more than 40 miles per hour, said David Hobbs, JSMC quality assurance specialist. He said each vehicle goes through a strenuous road test onsite at the facility’s two mile evaluation track. The course includes deep water forging, high angle brake tolerance tests, and simulated off road terrain hazards.

The road test is in addition to multiple inspections of every bolt, pin, wire and electrical component of the completed tank, Hobbs said. Once the vehicles successfully pass all tests, workers load them onto rail cars that run alongside the exterior of one of the plant’s 47 buildings.

After seeing the process for converting a rusty hull into a drivable M1A2 Abrams tank (no weapons are installed at the Lima facility), the group took turns completing a lap on the test track while sitting in a crew seat. Hobbs said the tank drivers also go through their own thorough testing phase before they can evaluate the vehicle performance requirements.

“Coming from a naval background, I’ve seen how ships get tested before they go into the water,” Ewing said. “This gives me a whole new perspective about the ground support aspects of the military and how much work goes into getting these vehicles ready for the warfighter.” He said becoming familiar with both land and maritime acquisition programs can have strategic value for DLA associates who may not otherwise be exposed to areas outside their expertise.

In December, the president signed into law the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes $1.2 billion in additional funding for the Abrams MBT and the Stryker Vehicle programs. A large portion of this funding will directly benefit operations at JSMC. 

JSMC is a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) facility, managed under the direction of Defense Contract Management Agency and operated by General Dynamics Land Systems.