5 December 2015

The U.S. Army’s Armories: A Thing of the Past?

Alexander Kirss, December 2, 2015 

The Springfield Armory, founded in 1777, successfully manufactured firearms for the U.S. military for nearly 200 years. Still, despite transitioning from flintlock muskets to the production of automatic weapons, the Armory was closed by order of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1968. That such a previously essential manufacturing facility could be shuttered with few negative ramifications while the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War makes it all the more surprising that the U.S. army still directly produces military weaponry at three arsenals in Illinois, New York, and Arkansas. Less surprising, perhaps, is that, per a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), these facilities are nowhere near profitable. Indeed, they have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in direct subsidies over the past years in a vain bid to break even.

Based on GAO estimates, Congress appropriated a combined $150 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 to assist the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, Watervliet Arsenal in New York, and Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. In FY 2015 the subsidies totaled $225 million. Pine Bluff and Watervliet similarly received subsidies from 2000-2006, with Rock Island also joining the dole from 2001-2007. Viewed differently, these facilities have only broke even at the height of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most costly wars since World War II.

Why, given their demonstrated financial insolvency, have these three facilities been continually allowed to operate? The answer, as with most issues regarding wasteful spending inside of the Department of Defense (DoD) is both technical and political. Firstly, proponents of the arsenals argue that they provide essential manufacturing capabilities that would be difficult, or otherwise unsuitable, to replicate in the private sector. While at face value the capabilities provided at these facilities (ammunition production, the manufacture of cannons and mortars, and the Army’s only foundry) would seem easily replicable, the tortured and opaque way in which the DoD defines requirements makes independent validation difficult. Still, per the GAO, the DoD has yet to formally define what these supposedly “critical” manufacturing capabilities are. Arguments about criticality are inherently suspect when they are based on anecdotal evidence and hearsay.

There also is a strong political rationale for the continued operation of the Rock Island, Watervliet, and Pine Bluff Arsenals. Politicians generally see the defense manufacturing industry writ large (encompassing both publically-owned arsenals as well as private businesses) as safe and reliable sources of employment in their communities. Defense procurement decisions, such as the well-charted case of the M-1 Abrams tank, are therefore important political spoils jealously guarded by politicians of both parties.

Unsurprisingly, all three Army arsenals have their supporters in Congress. While the current crop of presidential candidates has been somewhat quiet on the issue of the Rock Island Arsenal, Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) trumpeted the amendments that he added to the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which “make the Rock Island Arsenal stronger by driving more workload to their facilities.” After securing a subsidy for the Watervliet Arsenal in 2014, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) released a statement where he noted in one breath how the Arsenal “has supported the American warfighter and served as a source of great pride for our communities for more than 200 years,” and in the next highlighted that it “is one of the largest employers in our region and provides an economic impact to the tune of $100 million annually.”

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While it is impossible to fully eliminate the politicization of defense manufacturing, its effects can be mitigated somewhat (at least in the case of army arsenals) through highlighting the positive economic benefits that come with transitioning economically from dependence on the military towards privately driven development. Arguments against closing military facilities are not new, having been highlighted in ongoing battles over the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). Still, despite the dire predictions of economic doom made by critics of such closures, in a large number of cases regions that lose military bases are made better off, rather than worse off, from the forced economic transition. For instance, Richmond, Virginia, the site of the former Tredegar Iron Works now hosts the American Civil War Museum as part of a revitalized section of parks alongside the James River. In Illinois, the site of the former Glenview Naval Air Station has transformed into a vibrant 1,121 acre mixed development called “The Glen,” comprising residential housing, retail, dining, and commercial real estate.

Economic transitions resulting from base closures are certainly neither quick nor easy. Still, given thoughtful planning and effective leadership, they can be tremendously successful. Rather than unthinkingly spending tremendous effort, both politically and monetarily, to keep the Rock Island, Watervliet, and Pine Bluff Arsenals open, all parties—the DoD, affected communities, and politicians—would be better served by a serious discussion over both the costs of the status quo and potential benefits of change.

Alexander Kirss is a Resident Junior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

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