Blasting the Crusader
Why the Army's newest and biggest gun may become a target for Bush's Defense Department
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
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
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
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
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.
Senior Army officials seriously considered killing the program
last summer. But they insist that however unlikely the prospect
of a major armored war, they wouldn't want to fight one with
outmoded howitzers. So they've put the Crusader on a diet and cut
the original buy of 1,138 systems down to 480, for $11 billion.
Army generals boast they have turned the program around "nearly
on a dime" and that the gun will be ideal for everything "from
small-scale contingencies to full combat." But it will still
require huge cargo planes to get to war quickly. They may be able
to fly a little farther with the lighter Crusader. Perhaps the
perfect plane for the Crusader would be one capable of flying it
back to the era from which it came.
THE BIG BANG THEORY
The Army wants to replace its current sluggish Paladin gun with
the speedier Crusader
--SPEED: The Crusader will travel up to 29 m.p.h., vs. 18 m.p.h.
for the Paladin
--RATE OF FIRE: The Crusader will be able fire up to 10 rounds a
minute, double the Paladin's rate
--RANGE OF FIRE: The Crusader's shell will travel up to 25 miles,
vs. Paladin's 18
--WEIGHT: All these advantages fatten up the Crusader, making
even the slimmed-down model nearly 50% heavier than the Paladin