Any eighth-grader with a vague sense that the Cold War is behind us can understand why the Army’s proposed 80-ton Crusader artillery system, designed to be stored at European bases and dragged into position for conventional battles against the Soviets, is no longer a productive use of the Pentagon's investment dollars.
Too bad, therefore, that there aren’t more eighth-graders making budget decisions on Capitol Hill. Or on the Secretary of the Army’s staff, for that matter.
No sooner had Donald Rumsfeld’s office given word that the $11 billion Crusader was on the chopping block than the recalcitrants began kicking up resistance. Unnamed Army officials circulated pro-Crusader talking points that argued canceling Crusader would "put soldiers at risk" in combat.
Sen. James Inhofe, in whose state of Oklahoma the 480 Crusaders would be assembled, called the outdated behemoth the "crown jewel of our Army modernization program." And he and others in Congress have threatened a series of blocking and delaying actions to protect the Crusader from budget cuts.
Yet even supporters’ strongest arguments in favor of the artillery system can be shot full of holes.
Myth No. 1: Because Crusader requires less airlift than the existing system called Paladin, it is a vital modernization. The Crusader howitzer weighs some 40 tons and its supply vehicle weighs another 30-plus. And that’s the slimmed down version, cut after criticism of the original design a few years ago. At that weight, there’s no way the Army could efficiently airlift the Crusader, and therefore the service could not meet its own military-transformation objective of being able to deploy anywhere in the world in 96 hours.
Myth No. 2: Because Crusader can fire its shells in all weather it is irreplaceable in war. As the war in Afghanistan demonstrates, precise, satellite-guided munitions fired from long-range aircraft in the last few years have pretty much taken over the all-weather mission once boasted by Army artillery. Big Army gun systems continue to be important, but they have to be light and transportable on a C-130 — not traits that characterize Crusader.
Myth No. 3: Because Crusader can shoot more powerful shells faster and farther than its predecessors, it will offer essential protection for soldiers in major potential conflicts such as on the Korean peninsula or in the Persian Gulf. Even if the Crusader’s development remained on track, it wouldn’t be ready for almost another decade. Therefore, if soldiers face a fatal risk by not having the Crusader, they’re already doomed.
Less jokingly, the likelihood of a foe such as Iraq or Iran possessing weapons of mass destruction and missiles that could threaten nearby U.S. troops is grave already, and will only be more so in a decade. Without defenses against WMD or missile attack, U.S. troops will be at risk whether they have a big Crusader at their side or not.
The continuing survival of the hulking artillery system has been exhibit A of the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s lack of seriousness about transforming the military. Once stung by criticism, the Department of Defense did move reluctantly to support such modest elements of transformation as the conversion of four Trident submarines to fire Tomahawks and development of space-based radar with which the Air Force can track mobile targets deep in enemy territory.
As for transformation of the Army, it is hobbled by budget problems. The service finds itself trying to split its annual $80 billion or so among three different visions: buying updates for its Cold War systems, buying equipment for lighter, somewhat more advanced interim force, and as a result shortchanging plans for its futuristic "objective force." DoD’s belated move to cut Crusader is a first effort to release the service from those budgetary burdens.
Indeed, cutting Crusader is the bare minimum of what’s needed to bring the Army into the transformation fold: After cutting an old Army capability, the Pentagon needs to invest in a new, truly innovative Army capability.
There are some signs that has begun, with plans to direct some of the saved Crusader funds to advanced, precise munitions systems that would be deployable quickly around the globe. The advances should include:
Missiles-in-a-box. An easily transportable pack of missiles that might be mounted on a remotely operated vehicle, allowing soldiers not only to fire at targets beyond their line of sight but to stay out of harm’s way while doing it.
Greater precision for Army munitions: This might include more precise rounds for the current Paladin artillery system (which admittedly is not globally deployable quickly) or satellite guidance for the Multiple Launch Rocket System. One version of the MLRS, a series of 13-foot rockets that can be fired over 60 km, is particularly attractive as it is mounted on a truck and therefore easily transportable.
It’s progress enough that over a year after presidential candidate George W. Bush said explicitly that his administration would transform the military, the Rumsfeld team has moved somewhat to make good on that promise. The last thing it needs is to be criticized and cowed by anonymous Army old-thinkers, and outspoken yet dangerously outdated ‘supporters of a strong defense’ on Capitol Hill.
Melana Zyla Vickers covers national security issues, foreign affairs and global economics issues among other topics, for TechCentralStation. She is a former editorial writer for USA TODAY and has worked at the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review. She has a Master's degree from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.