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.