Blasting the Crusader

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Deep in the southwestern corner of Arizona, the dun-colored desert shudders underfoot as the Army's newest big gun, belching flame and smoke, blasts fire extinguisher-size artillery rounds farther and faster than ever before. Now under development, the Crusader is the world's most fearsome mobile howitzer. It is also among the costliest and heaviest ever built. And because of all that, it may be one of the fattest targets for the Bush Defense Department. Incoming Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is under orders from the new Commander in Chief "to challenge the status quo inside the Pentagon." Rumsfeld will almost certainly be backed by Dick Cheney, his protege and the new Vice President. Cheney shocked the Pentagon during his tenure there a decade ago when he killed the Navy's pet A-12 jet and tried to cancel the Marines' V-22 tilt-rotor, the troubled $40 billion project that was saved only by its congressional backers. The Crusader's fate will show just how vigorously Rumsfeld is willing to shake up the Pentagon's cold war mind-set or whether he will yield to the pressure of the gun's influential supporters.

Each Crusader system costs $23 million and, as witnessed by TIME during recent tests, it constitutes an amazing weapon. The three-man-crew compartment, lined with computer displays, looks more like the inside of a highflying jet cockpit than a mud-churning battlefield beast. Each system is actually two vehicles--the tracked business end topped with a turret and 155-mm gun, and a resupply vehicle carrying ammo and fuel. The gun's unique liquid-cooled barrel and automatic loading system allow it to fire 10 rounds a minute up to 25 miles, overwhelming the four-round, 18-mile range of the Paladin, the howitzer it is slated to replace.

The computerized gun will be able to fire a series of 100-lb. shells in rapid succession at different trajectories so that they land in their target zone at the same time, a frightening prospect for any foe. It also will be faster on the battlefield, zipping along at up to 29 m.p.h., allowing it to keep up with the Army's speedy M-1 tanks. "In Desert Storm our tanks were outrunning our artillery," says General John Keane, the Army's No. 2 officer. "That's a no-no in terms of operational success." That assertion has become the Army's refrain in justifying the Crusader.

While the Crusader won't be ready for action until at least 2008, the kind of war it was meant to fight is already obsolete. The Red Army is no longer poised to plunge through Germany's Fulda Gap. Iraq is contained, and North Korea is mellowing. Instead, threats are festering in less-developed regions, such as the Balkans and Africa, where heavy guns generally can't maneuver. Artillery--with its less than precise targeting--is designed to disrupt the massed armor and troop concentrations found on traditional battlefields. But future conflicts will focus on swift, dispersed combatants that provide scant prey for artillery.

The Army learned the importance of speed in Kosovo, where it was humiliated when it took a month to ship 24 Apache helicopters 800 miles from Germany to Albania. It vowed to transform itself into a lighter fighting force. It is spending $4 billion for a fleet of light, wheeled armored vehicles to be carried to battle aboard moderate-size but plentiful C-130 cargo planes. To keep the Crusader relevant, the Army wants to shrink the two-vehicle system from its current 110 tons to a relatively svelte 80 tons. But each system will still require a gigantic C-5 or C-17 cargo plane to ferry it to war in a hurry--and each is in extremely short supply.

The Crusader's woes won't end even if the gun manages to find its way to faraway runways. In the U.S. military's two most recent wars--against Iraq and Yugoslavia--Army officers were leery of pushing their tanks to Baghdad or Belgrade over flimsy bridges. If orders had come to take those capitals, engineers would have had to spend weeks reinforcing the spans or putting up new ones, hardly a blueprint for a blitzkrieg.

"The Crusader seems to fit a world that is now passing from the scene much more than the one that is now emerging," says Andrew Krepinevich, an ex-Army officer who directs the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. Increasing numbers of enemy missiles will render slower U.S. weapons vulnerable as they lumber to the front. "Crusader, with its bulk and sizable logistics tail," he says, "will not likely fare well in such an environment."

Some Army officers wonder if artillery soon will be eclipsed by better technology. The idea of lobbing shells through a mobile, rifled cannon hasn't changed much since World War I. Its goal remains to disrupt, not destroy, the enemy. But with every war, new kinds of ever cheaper, ever smarter munitions--guided precisely into their targets by satellites or aircraft--become the kings of the battlefield. They can kill, not merely scare, the enemy.

But the Crusader has another constituency, perhaps more powerful than its Pentagon backers: United Defense, the company building the system, is owned by the Carlyle Group, a privately held corporation run by a host of former Reagan and Bush Administration officials. They include Reagan's Pentagon chief, Frank Carlucci, and James Baker, George Bush's Secretary of State and the man who helped George W. win his election struggle in Florida. United Defense has decided to assemble the gun in a factory expressly built for the program near the artillery school at Fort Sill, Okla. The fort is represented in Congress by g.o.p. Senator James Inhofe, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Representative J.C. Watts, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House's fourth-ranking Republican. Both have exhorted the Army to buy the Crusader. To help fund it, the Army plans next month to ask for $500 million in the Pentagon's 2002 budget.

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