Last updated: August 25. 2013 8:55AM - 1905 Views

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LIMA ó General Dynamics Plant Manager Keith Deters has been doing his job long enough to know not to count on work until a contract is signed.

And right now, the contracts arenít yet signed for the Joint Systems Manufacturing Centerís military vehicle work for foreign governments. The work is key to keeping the JSMCís industrial base employed.

When the contracts for Saudi Arabia and Egypt are signed, Deters will be more confident about the outlook for the plant this year and next, but for now the news is better than itís been for a long time.

Deters, who co-chairs Task Force LIMA, which advocates for the JSMC and the Abrams battle tank program, expressed some cautious optimism Thursday during the task forceís monthly meeting. The group hasnít met in two months, and in that time, some major developments have happened.

Congress allocated funding for refurbishing 33 Abrams tanks in the annual defense appropriations, that President Barack Obama recently signed, after a threat to veto. The work will begin in the second half of 2014 and continue to be delivered into 2015. That work is minimal to keep the line warm; the plant typically builds about 120 Abrams tanks a year.

Saudi Arabia wants to refurbish and upgrade tanks the country purchased from the United States in the 1990s. Egypt wants supply kits and turrets to build new tanks in Cairo.

Israel is contracting with General Dynamics for a new armored personnel carrier. The JSMC has worked on five prototype vehicles and will begin shipping them by the end of the month. Once the vehicle is in full production, the JSMC will make five a month, for 60 a year. The contract calls for 386 vehicles to be built through 2019.

The JSMC, which is a government-owned facility operated by General Dynamics, currently employs about 700. Deters said it would be difficult to say what that number will look like even in the short term, as the plant has some other work thatís scheduled to end this year, and much of its future in the next few years depends on the foreign work. Other countries have expressed an interest in buying other vehicles from the United States, and that could mean additional work for the plant, Deters said.

The Pentagon has wanted to shutter the Abrams program until 2017, saying it has enough tanks until the next generation of the battle tank is developed and in production. However, General Dynamics says it would be cheaper to keep the Abrams line warm for minimal production than to shut it down and start it up, and the move could harm national security with cuts to the skilled industrial workforce in Lima that builds the tank.

The task force and a large, bipartisan group of state and federal officials have worked to fund minimal work at the plant. However, the Pentagonís window is not yet filled. If the foreign contracts come through, the work would fill the window through 2014 and the JSMC would be looking at a possible 18-month window of no work.

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