Los Angeles Times

Rumsfeld Fights the Good Fight in Bid to Derail Artillery System

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld should stick to his guns regarding the Army's proposed Crusader howitzer, which he vowed Wednesday to kill.

Although the Crusader has capabilities that existing weapons do not, it is not the only weapon that can do the job. It is not worth the $11-billion price tag.

That said, Rumsfeld is likely to lose this round in Congress, given the support for the Crusader among legislators and in the Pentagon. If that happens, he should try again next year as part of a broader plan that includes reductions in other, even more expensive, weapons programs. That's the only real way to create the spirit of shared sacrifice and political unity that Rumsfeld will need if he is to reshape the military within reasonable budgetary constraints.

Why, given the shortcomings and cost of the Crusader, is the Army so passionate about the weapon? The Army claims that Paladin, its existing artillery weapons system—that is, cannons designed for firing on targets beyond immediate visual range, sometimes 10 or more miles away—has insufficient range and battlefield speed.

These are shortcomings that, in theory, could hamper U.S. military efforts in the future. The Army says that should war break out in Korea, for example, the United States and South Korea would face a North Korean foe with 10,000 artillery weapons, many of which would be capable of longer-range strikes than the Paladin.

In such a situation, the United States might not be able to conduct a protracted and patient aerial attack. That would make U.S. ground forces vulnerable to enemy fire from day one of hostilities.

The Crusader could help in a situation like that. True, as its critics contend, it is something of a Cold War relic in that it was designed for slugging it out with the Soviets in Central Europe. And, true, it is too heavy to easily be deployed for the kinds of missions we have witnessed in recent years in places such as Kosovo and Afghanistan.

But many weapons designed during the Cold War have since proved very useful, such as F-15s, F-16s, laser-guided bombs, aircraft carriers, M1 tanks, B-1s and B-2s.

Also, the Crusader program, although expensive, would cost much less than current Pentagon programs for fighter aircraft, submarines, the tilt-rotor Osprey plane and several missile defense systems, each of which typically has a price tag of $20 billion to $60 billion.

That said, Secretary Rumsfeld is still right. The problem with the Crusader is not that it is useless on the modern battlefield but that it is not particularly needed.

That is because the United States today has many other systems, including long-range rockets and attack helicopters and jets, capable of striking deep behind enemy lines. All of them can carry precision weapons. And the military's progress in building real-time information networks means that targeting data can be passed along to these aircraft and rocket launchers from soldiers on the ground who may be the first to detect the location of enemy artillery.

But no secretary of Defense, even a popular wartime leader like Rumsfeld, can easily kill weapons that a military service and Congress strongly support. Just ask Dick Cheney, who tried to kill the Marine Corps Osprey aircraft a decade ago.

While secretaries of Defense and presidents do run wars, they have no greater control over the Pentagon budget than Congress, which has the constitutional responsibility to raise and equip armies and navies.

Largely for these reasons, the Clinton administration did not seek to cancel large weapons programs, and, until the Crusader, Secretary Rumsfeld had not tried to do so himself.

Rumsfeld contends that we need to radically transform the United States military and justifies his opposition to the Crusader in those terms.

But going after a single weapon system halfway through the annual congressional budget cycle falls short of boldness and makes his proposal seem underhanded to some.

The House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to vote on the matter as soon as today, and the Senate Armed Services Committee also must take up the matter.

We should wish Rumsfeld well in this Crusader endeavor, even though he may fail.