In the opening of the U.S. war with Iraq, tire procurement for military vehicles is continuing apace, with the performance of both new and retreaded tires so far living up to expectations.
The downside, though, is that commanders and procurement officials at military bases appear to remain prejudiced against retreads, making for slow business for retreaders certified for military business during what should be a boom time.
As during the Desert Storm campaign of 1991 in Iraq, all ground vehicle tires and associated parts-such as inner tubes and valves-for the Defense Department are managed by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive & Armaments Command (TACOM) in Warren, Mich.
Among the primary tires TACOM is purchasing for the war effort are tires for Humvees, tank hauling trucks and trailers, material handling equipment, heavy tactical trucks and some line-hauling trucks, according to Brian McCutcheon, logistics team leader for the TACOM Tire Group.
``It's difficult to say to what extent any retreaders are involved, because we don't buy directly from them,'' Mr. McCutcheon said in written answers to questions submitted by Tire Business. ``Retreading services are purchased directly by the user from retreaders we have pre-qualified.''
Current qualified retreaders for military procurement are Bandag Inc. franchisees and Mount Airy, N.C.-based Bray's Recapping Service Inc., he said. Among the most prominent new tire providers to TACOM are Goodyear, Michelin North America Inc., Continental Tire North America Inc. and Titan International Inc.
The military has not veered away from procuring Michelin tires because of the current strained relations with France, according to Mr. McCutcheon. A Michelin spokeswoman at company headquarters in Greenville, S.C., also said her company hadn't seen any falloff of orders from the armed forces.
``More than half of the U.S. Army's heavy tactical trucks run on Michelin tires,'' she said. ``We also have an agreement with the Navy for aircraft tires. We guarantee delivery anywhere in the U.S. in two days and anywhere in the world in four.''
Despite the war, military tire sales have not increased notably, according to the spokeswoman. ``These are long-term contracts, and the buildup in the Middle East has been going on for some time,'' she said.
Boycotting Michelin as a French company would be spectacularly counterproductive, the spokeswoman added. ``Michelin has 18 facilities in seven states and 20,000 American employees,'' she said. ``So to boycott Michelin would be to boycott a U.S. company.''
But Titan Chairman and CEO Morry Taylor had a different view. Not only is Michelin a French company at its core, but the Michelin tires for amphibious vehicles and other military applications are made in Canada, according to Mr. Taylor.
``That makes two countries that don't support us,'' he said. ``The military has this thing about buying anything from anyplace, and now it's backfiring.'' Mr. Taylor added that Titan provides the lion's share of military wheels, but the only company that supplies bead locks is Hutchinson S.A., another French firm.
Mr. Taylor insisted that there is concern within the military about sourcing from French firms, and that Titan is working with the armed services on this issue. ``We don't make some of this stuff, but we're trying to show them who else could,'' he said.
Goodyear also provides a substantial amount of products to TACOM, and not just tires, a company spokesman said. ``We provide belts, hose, tank track pads, bushings-a lot of different products,'' he said.
Bridgestone/Firestone does not sell tires directly to the government, but indirectly through its dealer network, according to a spokesman. In 2002 the company's dealers sold all branches of the government some 33,000 tires at a value of approximately $4 million, he said. One Bridgestone/Firestone dealer who contracts to sell tires with TACOM has sold 6,532 units year-to-date, at a value of $861,000, he added.
Despite the war, retreaders aren't having an easy time of selling tires to the military, according to Dean Bray Jr., vice president of Bray's Recapping Service.
``Retreading has really been off,'' Mr. Bray said. ``The way it's done, each military base does its own contracting for retreads. There's no national program, and some of the bases also contract their procurement out to civilians.
``They should be retreading, but a lot of post commanders are saying, `We don't want to mess with retreads,''' Mr. Bray said. ``The upshot is that 95 percent or more of the tires they order are new.''
Harvey Brodsky, managing director of the Tire Retread Information Bureau, has been working for years to break down the prejudice against retreads within the government. Recently, Mr. Brodsky has added to his usual message about the high quality of today's retreads a pitch regarding the fuel savings they offer in a time of high oil prices and tight supplies.
``Whether you like them or not, they save oil,'' he said. ``We're hitting very hard on that message.''
A few local military bases are buying retreads, but specific conditions in the desert mean that not many retreads are being purchased for use in the war overseas, according to Roy E. Littlefield III, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association.
``Tires on military vehicles are run underinflated to move in the sand at 25 mph,'' Mr. Littlefield said. ``But when the same vehicles reach the road and are run at 50-60 mph, that eats up tires pretty quickly.''
Mr. McCutcheon said he had not heard of any tire failures in Iraq so far, either retreaded or new. There were a number of failure reports during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, he said, but these were attributed to a combination of low-quality retreads, tires that were kept in storage too long, overloaded equipment and tires in emergency situations that lacked Department of Transportation approval.
``We learned quite a bit from that experience,'' he said, ``and I think that is reflected in the dearth of such reports currently.''
Officials of Continental and Bandag could not be reached for comment on this story.