Kill the Crusader

May 03, 2002

IT'S AN $11 billion howitzer that would have been useful if the Soviet Union had survived into the 21st century and embarked on an invasion of West Germany. It's a 42-ton piece of armor that can go just about anywhere as long as there isn't a bridge involved - and it doesn't have to go fast. It's the darling of United Defense Industries, which is owned by the Carlyle Group, which includes among its paid "advisers" former Secretary of State James Baker, former British Prime Minister John Major and former President George H.W. Bush.

It's called the Crusader, and it makes no sense. It would not be an asset to the U.S. military. But give credit where it's due - the howitzer's a survivor.

Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, wants to kill it. He may yet succeed, but he hasn't so far.

Mr. Rumsfeld's boss, the son of former President Bush, spoke out against the Crusader during the 2000 campaign. He said the United States needed a new kind of army that would be light on its feet, quick and lethal. The Crusader looked like a juicy target for a reform-minded newcomer. But what the younger Mr. Bush had not counted on was the "iron triangle" that links the armed services, the defense industry and their friends in Congress.

The Army secretary, Thomas White, wants the Crusader. So do Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma and both of that state's senators, because the Crusader would be assembled there. And so, for obvious reasons, does the Carlyle Group.

In March, the president's budget included $472 million to build Crusader prototypes. It was a complete victory for its supporters. Then, on Wednesday, word got out that Mr. Rumsfeld had decided to cancel the Crusader program outright. The army kicked and the congressmen objected and by nightfall the program hadn't been canceled after all. Now there's going to be another review.

The Carlyle Group is run by a former defense secretary, Frank Carlucci. Its specialty has been defense contracting. Last fall, it took United Defense Industries public and made spectacular profits.

This leads to several questions. Is it doing this country any favors to squander billions of dollars on an unneeded weapon? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that it is a disservice to the United States? Especially when the nation is at war with terrorists and needs to be focused on what works?

Do Mr. Baker, Mr. Carlucci and the elder Mr. Bush need to be reminded that sometimes the national interest should take precedence over personal gain? And is this an appropriate activity for a former U.S. president, much less the father of a current one? Or is that too old-fashioned an idea?

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