Crusader becomes target in defense transition debate

Last week's decision to eliminate the Army's $11 billion Crusader artillery program illustrates the landmines Pentagon officials face as they try to move the military into the information age.

Last week's decision by the Defense Department to eliminate the Army's $11 billion Crusader artillery program--and invest the money in more futuristic combat technologies--illustrates the larger debate over what technologies are truly "transformational" and the political landmines that Pentagon officials face as they try to move the military into the information age.

"We need to shift some investment dollars to prepare the Army to meet future security challenges," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said during a Pentagon briefing on the Crusader. "This decision is not about killing a bad system. This decision is about canceling a system originally designed for a different strategic context, to make room for more promising technologies that offer greater payoffs and are more consistent with the Army's overall transformation effort."

But many lawmakers have blasted the Pentagon's decision, arguing that the Crusader is a crucial component of military transformation.

"We talk a lot in Congress about giving the war-fighters what they want and need, and making sure it is the most modern and capable equipment. The Crusader is it," said Assistant Senate Republican Leader Don Nickles, whose home state of Oklahoma stands to lose hundreds of jobs if the Crusader program is terminated.

"This leap-ahead artillery piece will save soldiers' lives in battles in the 21st century," Rep. J.C. Watts, another Oklahoma Republican, said after the House Armed Services Committee voted to continue the Crusader program as part of the fiscal 2003 defense authorization bill, H.R. 4546. "There can be no question of Congress' commitment to the program."

Although the House passed that legislation last week by a 359-58 vote, many in Congress still favor the Pentagon's decision to eliminate the Crusader. "This is a weapons system that Napoleon would have loved, that was designed for a war from an age long past," Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer said during last week's House floor debate.

But an official from the company that manufactures the Crusader argued that the 40-ton, automated, digitally equipped, network-centric howitzer is so transformational that it would have baffled armies of the past.

"If Napoleon could have had it, he'd have loved it--but he wouldn't have understood how to use it," United Defense spokesman Doug Coffey said. "You've got a smart gun that is able to respond to digital information and program a mission and fire artillery without ever having to put a soldier at risk from exposure to chemical or biological attack ... because he's in a sealed cockpit."

Coffey added that the technologies propelling the Crusader are "exactly the kind of technologies the Army envisioned [for] its future combat system."

But critics argue that the high-tech Crusader does not fit into the military's need for faster, lighter, more flexible combat capabilities. "A top-of-the-line typewriter doesn't fit the bill in the laptop era," said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.