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On Point

Mud, the Crusader and Inter-Service Distrust

by Austin Bay
Aug 21, 2002

Part of the story of mud is the Army's Crusader Howitzer, which was declared officially dead this month.

The August action merely closed the bureaucratic coffin on the multibillion dollar howitzer project. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld killed the weapon last spring, when he made a solid case that Crusader doesn't provide the leap-ahead battlefield tech the United States needs to be researching, developing and buying.

I happen to agree with Rumsfeld, but I'm disappointed in the howitzer's defenders, and I'm disturbed because so few analysts have broached what this fight is really all about. It goes far beyond Crusader.

But let's stick with artillery for a moment. The U.S. Army has yet to make its case for field artillery versus air support or robots, for that matter. The case is mud. Field artillery lives -- in the mud, in the jungle, in the ice -- with the other ground troops. Crusader is about the Army owning its own fire support and being able to have it 24-7. Field artillery fire support doesn't fly away to a base.

And that's the clue. Lurking behind the Crusader conundrum is a fundamental issue in America's defense world -- inter-service distrust. This inter-service distrust, the ingrained attitudes and, yes, the legitimate worries behind some of those attitudes detract from the collective defense effort.

The historical peg is Guadalcanal. The Marines landed. Fire support came from U.S. Navy ships. Then the Imperial Japanese Navy showed up, and the U.S. Navy went away. The Marines were stuck there, out there, without air cover, without sufficient field artillery. Now, of course, the Marines are part of the Navy, but the Corps felt abandoned. Sure, the Navy had good reasons to pull back, but tell it to the Marines.

The USAF reigns supreme because American airmen and technology are very good. However, "close air support" -- dumping bombs and bullets on enemy forces to support Army ground troops -- is regarded by some fighter jocks as literally and figuratively beneath them.

I'm exaggerating a bit. USAF pilots, at great risk, have repeatedly saved the lives of American infantrymen. Still, close air support has been a stepchild in the Air Force, and the Army knows it.

The Air Force fighter jock doesn't want airpower reduced to artillery. The irony is, once the Air Force has smashed enemy air defenses, that is what air becomes -- and should become. Precision munitions, in fact, make air-delivered munitions excellent artillery -- one of Rumsfeld's points. A B-52 with a JDAM is like having a Navy 16-inch gun providing precise fire support, and it's available 2,000 miles from the sea.

B-52s, however, fly away. The field artillery lives with the grunts. Weather frustrates the best attempts at round-the-clock air support. The Army has a legitimate point.

Up to a point.

That's where Rumsfeld's whiz kids have their case. New technologies could provide that 24-7 support the ground troops need. These include "smart" missiles, air and ground robots and space-delivered munitions. The Army's 120 mm mortar already provides most of the close-in capabilities of medium field artillery, and a new generation of "smart mortar rounds" will make it better still.

Unfortunately, a lot of Rummie's whiz kids have never had the privilege of crawling in mud while in uniform. Until the new tech is proven, the Army's "conservative" response has moral legitimacy. That response, however, doesn't legitimate buying a pricey new artillery system in an era of technological transition. It legitimates keeping current legacy systems as a hedge, as we work the kinks out of promising technology.

As for inter-service distrust, the answer there is better integration of the armed services. When the U.S. armed services work togethe r, the results speak for themselves.

Reuniting the Army and Air Force is an old idea. It doesn't appeal to the brass, but so what? On the modern battlefield, everybody is in the air-space management business, from the rifleman to the B-52 pilot. The Army's new medium brigade concept looks a lot like the ground element of one of the U.S. Air Force's air expeditionary forces -- it's air-transportable, armored, agile and digitally linked. And Crusader's too heavy for the medium brigades.

Make the Army and Air Force one again. That'll make it easier for air and mud to stick together.

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