Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to kill the $11 billion Crusader self-propelled artillery system has already met resistance in the Army and Congress. The Crusader has now become a litmus test for whether the Bush administration is serious about reinvigorating its endangered agenda for military reform. As the Senate Armed Services Committee holds hearings today on the artillery system, the secretary should have the courage to fight fiercely the pitched battle with Congress and the vested interests — both inside and outside the Pentagon — that will be needed to end this program, which is an armored white elephant to taxpayers.
President Bush has repeatedly pledged to modernize existing weapons selectively, skip a generation of weapons technology, and invest the savings from canceling unneeded or outdated armaments in futuristic technologies that would transform the U.S. military to fight new threats. Bush has argued that the military needs to be lighter, more agile, and more rapidly deployable to hot spots around the world.
The wars in Kosovo and against terrorism demonstrate that the need for such transformation is most acute in the Army. In the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and around the world, the Army has used rapidly deployable units from its special forces and light divisions. In the war in Kosovo, the Army was too heavy to get to the theater in time to play a significant role in the fighting.
Eric Shinseki, the Army’s top general, seems to have recognized that the Army needs to get lighter. He is developing medium-weight units with lighter, wheeled vehicles that can be deployed more quickly. Yet the Army continues to buy “legacy” weapons systems that do not mesh well with the vision of a “transformed” Army. The heavy Crusader (although the Army has lightened the system, the combined weight of the mobile gun and attached supply vehicle is still 80 tons), designed to fight the heavy armor of the bygone Cold War era, is the best example of that mismatch. The RAND think tank, the National Defense Panel—an independent commission of retired generals and defense industrials and intellectuals — the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and even President Bush have all come to the same conclusion. Even some in the Army’s ground-vehicle community argue that the technology in the Crusader is not a “leap ahead” and that the system is an expensive way to make marginal improvements in the Army’s firepower.
Nonetheless, the Army continues to press to build the Crusader and maintains that the mobile artillery piece can provide more firepower farther and faster (the system is automated and has higher rates of fire) than its predecessor — the Paladin — and can be transported with fewer airlift aircraft. Yet the ascendancy of air power (cruise missiles, fighter and bomber aircraft launching precision guided weapons, and flying artillery from the AC-130 gunship) — demonstrated in all wars since Desert Storm — could provide a more flexible substitute for mobile artillery to provide fire support for forces on the ground.
If the office of the secretary of defense believes that the Army still needs mobile systems on the ground to provide its own fire support, the taxpayer’s dollars could be better spent on enhancing the capabilities of the Paladin. How? By purchasing a smart artillery shell guided by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, giving the Paladin a more capable gun, or investing in digital communications technology connecting artillery to ground and airborne sensors. Alternatively, the Army could buy a precision multiple-launch rocket system. If instead the Pentagon believes that a new mobile gun system is truly needed, a research and development program for a lighter, more easily deployable alternative to the Crusader is a better use of scarce resources.
Despite the Bush administration’s rhetoric about modernizing existing weapons selectively, skipping a generation of technologies, and using the savings to transform the force, the 2003 defense budget effectively terminated no major weapons systems. Even the president, during his campaign, criticized the Crusader program. If the secretary of defense cannot muster the courage to fight hard to kill this outdated and unneeded weapon, the administration’s already troubled effort to transform the way the Pentagon fights wars will ring hollow.