FORT HARRISON — At Fort Harrison, outside Helena, you can currently see M1 Abrams tanks assigned to the Montana Army National Guard – sitting in an outdoor parking lot.
“The vehicles have always been sitting outside,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Bancroft, who supervises the Unit Training Equipment Site at the fort. “We normally would put a tarp over them and try to accommodate some of the snow and rain not getting inside – and it still does not work out very well.”
Soon, however, those vehicles will have a new home – thanks to National Guard units from across the country. Throughout the summer, construction and civil engineering units from various states have spent two-week assignments at Fort Harrison, working on a new 60-by-200 foot arched metal building, called a “K-span.” It will serve as a storage facility for the fort’s entire inventory of Abrams tanks.
“The M1 Abrams has a lot of complicated, intricate electronic systems inside that are very delicate to temperature variation and moisture,” said Bancroft. “We're now going to be able to store these vehicles inside of a temperature-controlled environment to alleviate all the condensation and moisture from our varying temperatures.”
Currently, 32 members of the Missouri National Guard’s 131st Civil Engineer Squadron are on site, doing electrical installations, earth and concrete work and putting in the large rolling doors on either end of the building.
Leaders with the Montana Air National Guard’s 219th RED HORSE Squadron, based at Malmstrom Air Force Base, have been supervising the project and coordinating with each unit as they rotate in.
“From two-and-a-half years ago, the planning, design, logistical movements to get all this equipment here – all the tools, material,” said Capt. Dylan Bender, the project engineer. “It was a great team effort between the nine states that came here – Montana Army Guard, active duty and Guard all came together to create this facility.”
When the Missouri troops finish their work at the end of this week, the 219th will do the last two weeks of construction: completing exterior grading, doing finish work inside the building and pouring the concrete floor.
This project and the agreement that made it possible brings benefits for all involved. For the units doing the construction, it’s a valuable opportunity to get hands-on experience in the work they’ll be called on to do in the Guard.
“It’s the one weekend a month and two weeks a year, right?” said Senior Master Sgt. Brock Buerck, the non-commissioned officer in charge for the Missouri Guard members. “A lot of our members, they don't do this on the outside as well, so opportunities for this are critical for us to be successful in what we do.”
“When we have units from Florida come up here, they construct these a little bit different than here in Montana,” Bender said. “So it's picking up those skills and then taking them for the next time – of, ‘Hey, we can do it this way, or they can do it that way,’ as that crosstalk between different states and craftsmen.”
For the Montana Guard – who have been petitioning for a facility like this for years – it’s a chance to get the building put up efficiently. Construction is on track to be finished in under four months.
The new facility will also save money over the long-term. Bancroft said it’s likely to spare them $600,000 to $800,000 per year in maintenance costs on the Abrams tanks – money that can then be directed to other repairs or to training.
“With them being in that facility now, it's going to allow the soldiers more time for training when they're actually here, versus downtime for maintenance,” he said.
The facility is set to be finished by mid-August, which should give plenty of time to move the tanks inside in time to get them out of the Montana winter.