Pentagon defends plans to cancel heavy howitzer

Members of Senate panel press Rumsfeld on speed of decision, alternatives

May 17, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's plan to cancel an $11 billion heavyweight artillery gun was met by a skeptical Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, with most members saying Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a hasty decision without consulting Army officials or taking the time to study alternative weapons.

"You haven't even analyzed the alternatives," Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, told Rumsfeld and other defense officials. "I can't buy a pig in a poke, not with the troops in the field out there."

Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, said, "It's hard for me to trust that decision."

Rumsfeld replied that the decision to cancel the 40-ton Crusader howitzer was made after deciding the money could be better used developing precision weaponry and lighter, more mobile systems.

"The decision to recommend termination of the Crusader program was not reached precipitously - as some recent commentary has suggested - but after months of careful review, wide-ranging discussion, and in-depth planning and analysis," Rumsfeld told lawmakers.

Rumsfeld said the Pentagon had decided that "oversized systems" such as the Crusader could not be rapidly deployed to overseas hot spots that lack secure ports or airfields. Troops might have to move it onto beaches or over mountains.

As many as 64 C-17 cargo plane sorties would be needed to ferry 18 Crusaders, along with their ammunition carriages, support troops and supplies, the defense secretary said.

Army officials and Crusader supporters note that the big gun fires accurately at four times the rate of the current Paladin howitzer.

But Rumsfeld said an upgraded Paladin, when deployed with precision weaponry and missiles, could offer similar support. Some of these weapons would be ready by 2008, the proposed deployment date of the Crusader.

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, supported Rumsfeld and noted that in 1997 a defense advisory panel recommended canceling Crusader in favor of lighter, more mobile systems.

"Other tough decisions are going to have to be made in the future," said McCain, telling Rumsfeld, "If you fail here, it will be very difficult to make any other much-needed changes and transformations."

Among those under consideration for trimming or elimination are the Marines' proposed V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, the Army Comanche helicopter and the Air Force's F-22 fighter.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, said the Pentagon planned to spend $475 million on the Crusader in the budget it sent to Congress in February. Then he proposed a study of alternatives to the Crusader be completed by September.

Levin and other lawmakers noted that when Army Secretary Thomas White balked at the Crusader cancellation plan last week, defense officials offered him just 30 days to study alternatives, then changed course and swiftly recommended the weapon be axed.

Levin, who said he has not reached a decision on Crusader, said the Pentagon's move seemed to be a "zigzag, ad hoc" decision.

"I don't understand why the [Defense Department] is afraid to let the Army finish their analysis," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, where the Crusader gun would be assembled.

Until last week, he said, Army and Pentagon officials produced "countless testimonials" about the relevance of the Crusader system.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz testified that after White was notified that Rumsfeld planned to cancel the gun, that position was "lobbied against all over Congress" and the "orderly" process was over.

"We concluded we would have to come to a more rapid conclusion," he said.

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