When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced the cancellation of the Army’s planned $11 billion Crusader self-propelled artillery system, I happened to be disappearing some beers with a couple of active-duty Army officers who’d served with artillery outfits in the Gulf War. They were kind of bummed. That’s natural enough. If your combat experience was with the 87th Slingshot Brigade, you’d probably go through life thinking that the sine qua non of all warfare is rubber-band-powered weapons.
And the administration’s reasoning wasn’t lost on my beer-drinking buddies. Rumsfeld’s official justification for the move was that the 40-ton Crusader wouldn’t be able to keep up with the tanks and fighting vehicles it was designed to protect. While it might have been a terrific weapon for the set-piece battles it was designed for—against massed Soviet forces in the flats of Central Europe—the Crusader figured to be of dubious use in short-lead-time maneuver warfare in faraway mountainous places like Afghanistan. And so the Army will have to make do with its Gulf-War-era howitzers, with their much slower rate of fire, eventually to be augmented by a precision-guided round, as well as various planned mobile surface-to-surface rocket systems.
But to Army folks, the demise of the Crusader also signals something else: The Pentagon is downplaying the value of artillery. To soldiers this seems unfathomable. Artillery fire is accurate, long-range, and continuous—three things indispensable on the battlefield that really aren’t found together in any other land weapon. Even if the Crusader is the wrong weapon at the wrong time, it’s natural for soldiers to worry about the Pentagon leadership that’s leaving them without a next-generation artillery weapon. In the words of one former Army officer, Rumsfeld and his DOD cadre “don’t understand what artillery does.”
Consider the administration’s plans for upgrading the Army’s current howitzer by giving it a precision-guided round. This idea doesn’t pass the sniff test. Why? Because artillery’s real unique selling proposition is rate of fire, something pricey precision rounds can’t accomplish. When ground combat veterans talk about what artillery can do, they frequently refer to the “wall of steel” it produces. Yes, airstrikes and cruise-missile attacks may be more accurate, but as the Army’s top officer, Gen. Eric Shinseki, recently said at congressional hearings, they take time to mount. And he added, “If you have imprecise locations or if you just know that there’s enemy force out there, but you don’t have them accurately located, precision doesn’t help you very much.” There is often more real value in just, as soldiers say, making the enemy, wherever he is, “keep his head down” with constant, even if slightly less accurate, incoming fire, until you can make the maneuvers necessary to kill him with close and highly accurate direct fire. Now, those planned precision rounds will cost $200,000 apiece (Rumsfeld says that could come down to $30,000), so how can it possibly produce the same rate-of-fire-based heads-down effect as a $200 howitzer round? For what it costs to put 10 howitzer rounds per minute downrange for one hour and 40 minutes, you can fire off exactly one of the proposed precision rounds.
What’s more, neither the chairman of the joint chiefs, the vice chairman, the top officer in the Army, his vice chairman, nor important Army theater commanders were consulted by Rumsfeld about the Crusader cancellation decision before it was made. No wonder there’s even a Department of the Army water-cooler theory about the recent drumbeat of editorials and op-eds calling for the secretary of the Army, Thomas White, to resign over his Enron connections and his personal use of government aircraft: that it was goaded on by agents of Rumsfeld who view White, a former Army general, as a formidable obstacle to keeping the Crusader killed.
Then there’s the question of whether higher-ups properly assessed the role of artillery in Afghanistan, especially in the biggest battle there to date, the one marked by the most U.S. casualties, Operation Anaconda. The U.S. Anaconda forces had no shot at the Crusader, because there isn’t even a prototype and mass production would have been years away, but they didn’t bring along any of the artillery pieces they do have. One 101st Airborne major told Army Times, “We did ask a couple of different times, but Central Command said no.” The reasoning was that the 4,500-pound howitzers might have slowed down the U.S. forces, especially given the rugged terrain, and would have diverted some troops to the mission of artillery protection. Instead, the U.S. forces used mortars—which, while quite accurate, have at most about a 4-mile range, about half that of an artillery round. The job of longer-range fire was given to airstrikes. Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads up Central Command, stands by this decision, but Gen. Shinseki recently told Congress that during the first couple of days of Anaconda, “the average time between a call for immediate close-air support and the arrival of munitions was something like 25 minutes. Twenty-five minutes gets measured a lot of ways, but if you’re sitting there taking incoming mortar fire, 25 minutes is a long time.”
To be sure, Rumsfeld’s reasoning on the Crusader isn’t completely misguided. He’s right when he points out that “we have air power from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force. We have a whole range of things that can be used in a joint way, and the task is not to look at a single one of them.” This overarching principle—that we need to look at the nation’s needs rather than focus on those of an individual service—is a good one, and taken seriously it could lead to many needed defense reforms, like shutting down the Pentagon’s own intelligence service and some or all of the service academies. But there is a dark side, too—that an emphasis on jointness will overlook some real unique needs of the individual services.
A good example of this is the mission of close-air support of ground troops. By long-standing agreement, the Army has no airplanes designed for this mission—which is ceded to the Air Force and the Navy. And although the Afghanistan experience may change everything, it’s fair to say that until now, neither the Air Force nor the Navy has considered this mission a top priority. They certainly haven’t accorded it the priority the Army would have had it been allowed to. As a result, over the years U.S. ground troops have been less well-protected than they should be. I can see why Army people look at Rumsfeld’s Crusader decision and think, “Oh no, here we go again …”
So, Army grumbling about the Crusader cancellation goes far beyond the details of the weapon itself. And beside the issue about whether the Pentagon really understands ground warfare, there’s a bureaucratic but very real aspect. Because government organizations derive their power from their budgets, every branch of the military must, in order to thrive, have a Next Big Thing, and the Crusader was the Army’s. Which leaves the Army looking at a significant loss of bureaucratic oomph.
What to do? While still working hard for incremental improvements in artillery, the Army needs to make a big budget play, too, but one that’s genuinely tied to the unique demands of ground warfare. So how about taking fixed-wing ground attack back from the Air Force and the Navy and adopting it as one of the Army’s priority missions? This would justify the Army’s going for a big new air-to-mud airplane program, including new air-launched precision munitions and oodles to mint the Army pilots required. (I would suggest going for a passel of new improved A-10s, the current versions of which are chronically underused by the Air Force.) This would, unlike any Crusader resuscitation, keep the Army in the Pentagon power game while clearly illustrating the importance of Rumsfeld’s Big Picture principle.