Secretary of the Army Mark Esper

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper speaks to reporters at the Anniston Army Depot on Wednesday. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper toured Anniston Army Depot on Wednesday morning, and afterward had little to say about the armored personnel carrier contract that could shape the depot's future.

But the next stop on Esper's itinerary spoke volumes about what was on the Pentagon's mind.

"I'm going to be heading, actually, to Red River," he said. "I'm going to spend some time with them this afternoon."

In use since the 1960s, the M113 saw wide use in Vietnam, but later conflicts saw it outpaced by faster tanks and too lightly armored for the bomb-laden streets of post-invasion Iraq.

Bombed-out and run-down armored vehicles often find their way to Anniston Army Depot, where the Army repairs and rebuilds tanks and small arms. A contract to repair the AMPV might not yield jobs here until the 2030s, after the vehicles have acquired some wear and tear.

Still, acquiring the contract — and potentially securing the future of the depot — has been high on the priority list of Alabama's congressional delegation.

The visit by Esper, the top civilian official within the Department of the Army, initially seemed like a possible prelude to an announcement about the AMPV contract. BAE Systems on Tuesday announced it had secured an $837 million contract to begin production as early as next month. Esper's entourage included staff for Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, Anniston's congressman. But in a brief press conference after the tour, Esper didn't bring up the AMPV until asked, and didn't commit to a time when the depot decision might be announced.

"In due course, I'm going to have to sit down and go through that and make the best decision for the Army," he said. He said the decision would come in "coming months."

Esper didn't take reporters along on the tour, which likely would have taken him through the cavernous workshop where workers weld and rivet tanks and APCs on an assembly line, or smaller shops where gunsmiths fix rifles and pistols, or the testing tracks where repaired tanks are sometimes put through their paces.

The scale of the 15,000-acre depot is beyond anything most civilian factories can replicate, and it remains Calhoun County's largest employer. Still, Anniston has yet to fully recover from the closure 20 years ago of a larger installation, Fort McClellan, and local officials are sensitive to anything that affects the depot's future.

Red River occupies a similar role in Texarkana, and according to accounts in the press, the installation laid off 300 workers last year. Rogers, the Anniston congressman, earlier this year described the Texas installation as "slowly dying."

Still, Red River sits at the corner of four states  — Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma — and is therefore of interest to a sizable number of senators and House members. The Texas depot is also the only depot for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, another armored vehicle the Army hopes to replace in the future. The AMPV is built on a Bradley chassis.

Esper on Wednesday sidestepped questions about the pros and cons of Anniston and Red River.

"I'm going to bite my tongue on that," he said.

He did mention the fact that Anniston is in the middle of hiring hundreds of workers to meet its current needs — and he mentioned the depot’s recent struggles to find enough skilled workers to fill the jobs available.

Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, said he believes Army officials are now leaning toward Red River. He said he didn't believe the workforce skills gap would be a disadvantage for Anniston.

"Red River is having the same difficulties," he said.

According to a Government Accounting Office report issued in December, Army and Air Force depots across the country are having a hard time finding workers with the right skills. Anniston was short on electronics mechanics, heavy equipment mechanics and artillery repairers in 2017, according to the report. Work on the MA88A1, an armored tow truck for tanks, was delayed in 2017 due to the lack of skilled workers, the report stated.

Red River also took a hit in the GAO report, cited for a shortage of painters and weapons systems mechanics in 2017, and a delay in repairs an an all-terrain vehicle in 2013.

For both installations, the report cited a surge of qualified workers hitting a retirement age as one cause of the shortage. The report also cited both Red River and Anniston for a "lack of stable workload" that leads to layoffs and reassignments, making it hard for the depots to compete with private-sector employers.

Anniston in recent years has faced layoffs with the drawdown of military action in Iraq, followed by boosts in hiring due to overseas defense contracts and recent increases in defense spending.

Esper alluded to the stop-and-go nature of the work while talking about upcoming Army projects. Among other things, the Army is now looking into a replacement for the Bradley — an "optionally manned" personnel carrier that could carry troops but also could be piloted remotely like a drone, according to Army officials.

"We want to have steady work coming through the system," he said. “Some kind of predictable assurance for the workforce."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.