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KILLING THE CRUSADER



Published: Thu, May 2, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: The Army's Crusader artillery system is becoming the Rasputin of weapons programs. It is the howitzer that wouldn't die.

No sooner had Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signaled last week that he intended to kill the $11 billion program than defenders of the big gun started popping up in Congress and the Army to keep it alive. Among those jumping to its defense were Sens. Don Nickles and James Inhofe and Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. -- all Republicans from Oklahoma, where the self-propelled gun would be assembled.

But Rumsfeld has decided to kill the mobile howitzer regardless of the lobbying to save it, The New York Times reported Tuesday. That should be his prerogative. This is more than a budget battle over one weapon. It's a test of President Bush's authority to remake the military.

Congress legitimately wields the power of the purse in America's democracy. But when members of Congress -- eager to protect lucrative weapons contracts that enrich their districts -- start telling the Pentagon to buy weapons its leaders don't want and don't need, that's an outrageous overstepping of power and propriety.

This episode demonstrates just how difficult it is to kill an unneeded weapons program.

Watershed moment

This battle is a watershed moment for Rumsfeld, who is trying to transform the armed forces into a more modern, mobile, high-tech fighting force ready for the unpredictable threats of a new century. Arms created to meet the threats of the last century's Cold War, including the Crusader, hamstring the Pentagon when they divert its attention, and its appropriations, from hardware better suited to likely conflicts of the future.

The battle against the bureaucracy is daunting. Defense Department officials and Army brass have a lot invested in the Crusader -- including $2 billion of development money. They aren't giving up easily. Its advocates within the Pentagon not-so-secretly sent talking points to Capitol Hill last week to help Congress fight a rear-guard action against Rumsfeld. His reaction, couched in polite but potent rhetoric, was unforgiving: "Needless to say, I have a minimum of high regard for that kind of behavior."

That's a warning shot the military brass ought to heed. The Army launched a probe Friday into whether some in its ranks went behind Rumsfeld's back to thwart his attempt to kill the Crusader. That embarrassing foolishness put Army Secretary Thomas White in the administration's crosshairs, although Bush and Rumsfeld appeared to let him off the hook Tuesday.

The Army needs a more modern artillery system to replace the aging Paladin howitzer. But critics argue convincingly the Crusader will be obsolete by the time it's to be deployed. Rumsfeld is right to kill it. And Congress should butt out.




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