Wichita CNH plant delivers first Army loaders

The latest Case skid steer loader features a gun rack and is guaranteed to survive a parachute drop.

The vehicles on the production line at the CNH plant in southwest Wichita are among the first of 2,000 bought by the U.S. Army for construction work.

The first shipment of 25 of the small, tan-colored construction vehicles will be delivered for use in Afghanistan within a month or so.

The company expects the Army to purchase 1,400 additional loaders as part of five one-year contracts after the original five-year contract expires.

On Wednesday, the company marked the occasion of the first delivery with plant tours and speeches by company executives.

If all 3,400 units are built, the up to $160 million contract would pump millions of dollars of payroll into the local economy, plus benefit a number of Kansas suppliers.

"It's great for the economy," said Simon Boag, executive vice president for Case Construction Equipment.

In return, the Army gets new equipment built with soldiers' needs in mind.

"It truly is built Army strong," said Pat Hunt, director of strategic accounts for CNH construction equipment.

All of the loaders will be built at the Wichita plant, CNH's only skid steer plant.

The contract is one of the reasons that employment at the plant, which employs more than 400 people, is beginning to strengthen, said Todd Seeley, the plant's director of operations.

Last year, the plant experienced furloughs as it struggled through weak agricultural and very weak construction markets. This year, the company has called back some laid off workers and has filled its production schedule through much of the year, Seeley said.

The plant makes Case skid steer loaders for the construction industry and New Holland versions for the farm sector. It produces about 50 loaders per day.

Although not armored as some of the company's military backhoes are, the loaders must run on jet fuel, carry two batteries, survive an airdrop, operate at up to 120 degrees and down to 25 below zero and clean up easily after a chemical attack.

Lt. Col. Darrell Bennis, who helps oversee product development for the Army, noted that the plant's workers were building the machinery that will help the Army operate for 25 or 30 years.

"I see it as a Swiss Army knife that for 24 or 25 years will be helping those in harm's way," Bennis said.

"Once they get out there, everybody is going to want one."