Pentagon plans to scrap Crusader gun

Howitzer doesn't fit goal of mobile, precise weapon for future, officials say

May 09, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials said yesterday that they want to kill the $11 billion Crusader artillery gun, a heavyweight howitzer that caused a rift between its Army champions and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Officials said Congress would be asked to shift the money previously earmarked for Crusader to more futuristic precision weaponry.

"When the dust settles, we'll find that Crusader has been ended," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference, displaying confidence that he can beat back possible congressional efforts to revive the program.

Later, Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, flanked by Army Secretary Thomas H. White, told reporters that the 40-ton mobile artillery gun did not fit with the goal of developing light-weight Army weapons for future battlefields that can be quickly dispatched to the fight in small cargo planes.

While pointing to "a vital role for accurate artillery," Wolfowitz said the Army must develop weapons that are "more mobile, lethal and deployable."

`Crown jewel'

Congress may not go along with the Pentagon's termination plan for Crusader. The howitzer has strong support on Capitol Hill and the first of 480 Crusaders was to be delivered in 2008. There is $475 million for the howitzer in President Bush's defense budget for fiscal year 2003, which begins Oct. 1. Of the $11 billion total, $2 billion has been spent.

Last week, as word was spreading that Rumsfeld planned to scrap Crusader, the House Armed Services Committee voted to continue the program through next spring, in effect defying the defense secretary. The Senate committee is expected to do the same this week.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, where Crusader is to be assembled, said he would fight for continued funding for the howitzer, calling it "the crown jewel of the Army's modernization program."

"We cannot allow our future troops to go into battle without the very best equipment, and Crusader will be the best," he said in a statement. "Congress will ultimately decide this issue."

Heavy, outdated

Pentagon officials pointed to the incongruity of Crusader in the Army's plan to modernize for the battlefields of the future. While the Army is developing 20-ton armored vehicles that can be transported on C-130 cargo aircraft, Crusader would have to be carried on the larger C-17 plane. It also must be accompanied by a resupply vehicle of the same 40-ton weight.

Moreover, Pentagon officials said, Crusader was an outdated system developed a decade ago, when large land battles were envisioned. Today, the more likely scenario involves smaller-scale skirmishes with a less sophisticated foe or guerrilla-style fights with terrorists, such as the case in Afghanistan, they argued.

Some defense analysts see the fight over Crusader as a key test of Rumsfeld's efforts to change the military from a Cold War-style force laden with fighter aircraft, lumbering tanks and heavy guns into high-tech warriors harnessing split-second information, stealthy weaponry and unmanned drones to dominate a battlefield.

Until earlier this week, White and other Army officials strongly backed Crusader, saying its precise, rapid-fire gun could shoot a 100-pound shell from the Capital Beltway and strike within the diamond of Camden Yards.

With its sophisticated sensors and robotics, the all-weather howitzer could also quickly shift to strike multiple targets, unlike the Army's current heavy artillery system, the Paladin, developed in the early 1960s, Army officials said.

White said yesterday that he supported the cancellation decision made by Rumsfeld. "The Army will work hard to execute that decision, period, full stop." White had been supporting Crusader, calling it an "integral part" of the Army's battle plans.

White said he was told Tuesday afternoon that the Pentagon would formally cancel the program. "Up until that time the Army, as all services do, worked very hard to support the president's budget," he told reporters.

Last week, after Pentagon officials said they intended to cancel the program, a mid-level Army civilian employee faxed "talking points" strongly defending Crusader to supportive lawmakers. That back-channel lobbying effort infuriated Rumsfeld and the Pentagon inspector general mounted an investigation, with the results expected as early as today.

The Army secretary told Rumsfeld he was not aware that the talking points were sent to Capitol Hill. Both the defense secretary and the president said Tuesday that they were still supportive of White.

Amendment

White, a West Point graduate and retired brigadier general, said yesterday that the need for artillery support for ground troops "still has to be met." Some in the Army fear that the Pentagon will not find a suitable artillery alternative to Crusader and will instead focus more on air power to protect U.S. troops.

But Army officers complain aircraft can easily be grounded due to weather and are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles. In a crisis, they say, aircraft might not be there to help.

By May 20, the Pentagon and the Army will put together an amendment to the 2003 defense plan that would replace Crusader with a variety of as yet unspecified items.

Wolfowitz said yesterday that options include accelerating several armor and artillery programs, among them the Excalibur precision artillery shell, now slated for delivery in 2008 for Crusader and 2013 for the aging Paladin.

Asked whether such replacement could fill the need for which Crusader was designed, White replied, "I don't know. That's what we're going to have to find out."

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