The Ohio city proud of its place on the front line of the battle against Russia

A factory in Lima is building the Abrams tanks crucial for Ukraine's war effort

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Surrounded by a rusty old railway line and chemical factories pumping out steam, the industrial complex on the outskirts of this Midwestern town may not seem like a place of geostrategic intrigue or cutting-edge military innovation.

But what is happening inside the Joint Systems Manufacturing Centre in Lima, Ohio, could play a crucial role on the other side of the Atlantic, where Ukraine remains locked in a brutal battle for survival nearly a year after Russia's invasion.

This is where the US military is building Abrams tanks, the high-tech military asset that was thrust under an international spotlight in recent weeks as Ukraine pleaded with the US and European allies to send armoured vehicles.

After weeks of diplomatic negotiations with Germany, the White House last month announced it would send 31 M1A2 Abrams tanks to Ukraine to help it fight Russia.

Berlin, still unsure of how assertive its military posture should be given the 20th century's two world wars, had been reluctant to send its own Leopard 2 tanks without America pledging to do so.

The US shipment of 80-tonne, jet-fuel-powered Abrams tanks came after Britain agreed to send its Challenger 2 tanks and other European nations pledged to send dozens of German-made Leopards.

It remains to be seen how effective they will be in fighting Russia, which has dug in along front lines and is preparing for new offensives.

But the West hopes the tanks will help tilt the course of the conflict in Kyiv’s favour.

For residents of Lima, more than 800 of whom were employed in the plant as of 2020, that means a lot.

“When you sit back and think about what it means to our country, the work that’s being done there, to know the footprint of this tank is right here in Allen County is tremendous,” says County Commissioner Cory Noonan.

“What this tank means to the United States and our allies, it’s huge.”

The Abrams plant sprawls over about 150 hectares. The military has contracted General Dynamics Land Systems, an aerospace and defence company, to run it.

Requests to visit the plant were not acknowledged.

The tank factory boasts technology such as plasma cutters that scythe through military-grade titanium alloy sheets at 10,000ºC — twice as hot as the surface of the Sun.

Finished tanks, which can travel at speeds of up to 65kph, are put through their paces on adjacent land and water testing sites before being shipped off to battlefields around the globe.

The Abrams tank version that Ukraine is set to receive has an improved weapons station, targeting optics and thermal viewer.

But they will not include the specialised armour package that is reserved for use by the US military, Politico reported.

It could take months before the tanks reach Ukrainian battlefields. Crews need to be trained outside the country and the logistics of producing and sending a battalion of tanks are enormous.

For Lima, the plant’s importance is not solely centred on the people it directly employs.

In addition to its hundreds of on-site workers, almost 200 suppliers, many of which are in the immediate region, produce services and goods that help to get the tank get battle-ready.

Its profile and role in the local economy is such that it merited a visit from then-president Donald Trump in March 2019.

Considerable credit for the plant’s success, some locals say, lies with Mr Trump, who in 2019 requested 174 Abrams tanks for the military, an order valued at $714 million.

Previously, the Obama administration had pushed to shut down the plant as part of a wider tightening of the country’s military budget.

“What President Trump did … it was a shot in the arm for military and this community,” Mr Noonan says.

Established in 1942, the tank plant made about 100,000 combat vehicles for the US army during the Second World War, turning Lima into a centre of industrial activity and employing about 5,000 workers at its peak.

It began producing the Abrams tank, which later went on to be used in the First Gulf War, in the late 1970s.

Long before then, Lima was part of a network of leading industrial communities that stretched from Detroit in the north to Pennsylvania in the east, and included cities across Ohio.

From the late 1800s until the 1970s, hundreds of locomotive trains and thousands of school busses and other large vehicles were built in Lima.

It has also been a centre of oil and petroleum production and refining for more than a century.

Today, the pace of life in Lima has slowed, with its population having fallen significantly since the 1970s due in large part to the wider manufacturing decline the Midwest has experienced.

Sending jobs overseas has fuelled unemployment that has led to a host of socio-economic ills such as homelessness and crime.

Some Lima residents suggested the US government should focus on helping to ease homelessness and economic challenges locally before lending a hand to other countries.

And yet America’s continuing role as the world’s policeman means that life in this Midwestern town is inextricably linked with events thousands of miles away in Eastern Europe.

“I think everybody has a heart," says Dino Guagenti, a real estate broker in Lima. "When [Russia] starts killing innocent people, how do you not help them?

“Right or wrong, you have no choice [but to help Ukraine]. They didn’t want this war. There’s no doubt that the tanks will help [because] the Ukrainians are fighting with their hearts."

Updated: February 03, 2023, 6:00 PM