Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld
decided in May 2002 to kill the Crusader
gun system. That came as a shock to many, especially to the Army
. The XM297 Crusader was a top priority of the Pentagon, seen as a critical replacement to the aging M109 Paladin
gun system currently employed. Rumsfeld’s rationale was that the Crusader had been designed to fight Cold War
battles. During the Cold War, the Army was preoccupied with the Central Front, where tank heavy Soviet divisions would attempt to overwhelm NATO
in a heavily mechanized
battle. Certainly the Crusader would have offered welcome improvements in fighting such a war. But Rumsfeld argues that it is a liability in future conflicts, which he sees as being more like the battle in Afghanistan
. In such conflicts, the Army is seen by many as being too ‘heavy’ to arrive quickly and intervene as needed. One such advocate of change is Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki
. Shinseki has long argued that the Army needs to be lighter, and more mobile. Yet in remarks made only a week after Rumsfeld’s decision, it was clear that the General was taken aback by the Crusader’s cancellation. So why was the General most associated with the ‘new Army’ clearly displeased to lose the Army’s prized gun? Answering this question gives us an opportunity to explore the nature of the Army’s new mission
, and the kinds of force required to meet it.
The Fulda Gap in Germany was for many years the nightmare for NATO defence planners. It is a low, relatively flat plain in central Germany that was seen by many as the most likely spot for a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. The Soviet Army’s tank force numbered into the tens of thousands, and the area near Fulda, Germany is tank country. Nice open terrain where armored forces can be maneuvered, and use their speed. German forces faced such odds on the Eastern Front during World War II. They lost, yet German Army records state that they could readily defend against three to one odds if they could maintain artillery superiority, or even parity, throughout the battle. From 1943 on that proved very difficult for the Wehrmacht, at least in part due to a shortage of ammunition. For artillery is the killer of modern war. Fully half of all combat casualties caused in that war were due to artillery fire. Few things are more terrifying for an infantryman than artillery fire. All you can do is cower in your hole, and hope it goes away. All your side can do is shoot back, and hope to disable the enemy artillery.
Counter-battery fire is an old game. During the second world war, the Germans used what they called a ‘sound and flash’ system to locate enemy artillery and direct fire upon it. All armies employed similar techniques, to a greater or lesser extent. Today counter-battery fire is even easier, with specialized radars being employed to direct the guns. All ballistic missiles and artillery shells fly a ballistic path, which is mathematically determined. Observe the path and even a commodore 64 has more than enough processing power to tell where the shell was fired from. Often before it lands. So the artillery game in a mechanized army is called ‘shoot and scoot’, where a barrage is fired and then the firing unit moves. Immediately.
Traditional towed artillery is very bad at this game. It can be hooked to a truck and towed a short distance away, but really it takes a half hour or more to really disemplace. The men operating the gun are exposed, extremely vulnerable to counter-battery fire. Such guns are very common in the third world, and in light infantry units, because they are inexpensive and lightweight. But against a serious opponent, you will lose too many people. The gun of choice is self-propelled, like the M-109 or the Crusader. It can move in minutes. They can emplace in minutes. They are armored, not heavily like the tanks weak journalists often mistake them for, but armored enough to protect the gun and its crew against shell fragments, which are the real killers.
Another important factor is range. If your gun can shoot farther than the other guy, then you can park it far enough behind the lines, nice and safe to do its business. The M109, though a reliable and proven weapon, is particularly weak in that regard. The A3 variant can reach out 23 kilometers, but only with rocket assist projectiles. With standard charge the range is 17. The A5/6 models can reach thirty kilometers but the gun is still outranged by many weapons already in service. That is one reason the Army prefers to use the MLRS rocket system as its primary counter-battery weapon.
The Crusader is a very good weapon in such an environment. It is self-propelled, armored, and its rate of fire more than doubles that of the M-109. And it can be sustained much longer. The crew is cut from nine to six. The gun even has a ballistic feature that allows five shells to be fired separately on paths that will make them land almost simultaneously. With that feature, a battery of Crusaders can simulate the MLRS’s capabilities to a certain degree. It’s gun can reach out to 40 kilometers, which is very much the state of the art. It can be reloaded and refueled in under 12 minutes, which is very fast, and dramatically cuts any weapons most vulnerable period. And it is fast, with road speeds almost doubling those of the Paladin. During the Gulf War against Iraq, M109 units would ‘drop off’ periodically to deploy in case any artillery fire was needed. But once deployed, they could not catch up. The farther the Army moved, the less artillery support it had. Or it would be forced to slow down for its guns. Neither option is tactically desirable. The Crusader can keep up. Tactically, it is much more mobile.
Mobility. Ah, there’s the rub.
There are two types of mobility a defence planner must contend with. The first is tactical. Tactical Mobility concerns the ability of a vehicle or weapons system to move or be moved in the field. Battlefields are messy places. Bombs readily displace anything, and since the beginning of time General Mud and Marshal Winter have very much been a factor in military operations. Just ask Napoleon. Tactically, the US Army is a very mobile force. The Army learned a lot during World War II. They liked the way the M4 Sherman tank performed on road, but its narrow tracks produced a high ground pressure. Which meant that off road, the German tanks with their wider tracks could go places Americans could not. The Army adopted an ‘all-track’ philosophy for its combat vehicles. US equipment is designed to go almost anywhere, period, and is very good at that. But that mobility comes at a price.
Track laying systems are complex and require a lot of maintenance. They don’t like roads, and a good rule of thumb is that in any 100 mile march a quarter of your tracked vehicles will break down. Which is why tanks have many axled semi-trailers to cart them from battlefield to battlefield. They need lots of spare parts. They burn gallons of fuel per mile. Tracked vehicles demand more mechanics and supplies of all types than their wheeled equivalent..
And this takes us to the second type of mobility, and that is strategic mobility . Strategic mobility describes the ability of a force to be deployed to the battlefield, wherever it may be. After Kuwait was invaded, Pentagon planners were frantic. They flew in the 82nd airborne division, an excellent unit, but totally devoid of armor. Most planners regarded the 82nd as nothing more than a speed bump. Without armor, no one saw much hope that the 82nd could hold anything against a mechanized enemy, even with heavy air support. And it took weeks and every airplane in the Military Airlift Command to get the 82nd there. Until the 27th Mechanized Infantry Division offloaded its big M1-A1 Abrams Iraq could have taken the whole of Saudi Arabia at any time. Getting the heavy stuff there took months.
The same problem applied in Afghanistan. The country is land locked, and its neighbors aren’t necessarily pro-America: Iran, China, India, Pakistan, and several pieces of the former Soviet Union. In order to move in a conventional army in, the US would need a land corridor and a port which no one was willing to grant. Air power was hamstrung because the nearest land base was at Diego Garcia a couple thousand miles away. Almost all our air power flew off aircraft carriers, and was supported by tanker aircraft. The US fought that war with both hands tied behind its back. Without the Northern Alliance to serve as ground troops and precision guided munitions Sheik Omar would still be in power.
In addition, Afghanistan is 7,000 miles away. If someone had actually granted us a land corridor-- or if Bush had chosen to invade someone and create his own-- the US could not move the necessary forces quickly. A US Mechanized division itself has 17,000 men and 277 tanks. Only one of whom can be loaded onto a C-5 or C-17 at one time. If it takes ten thousand airplane flights to move a Light Infantry Division how many does it take to move 27th Mech? Which has 3,000 trucks in addition to over a thousand armored vehicles. To move a mechanized force you need ships and you need trains. Period. That means the unit and its equipment need to be loaded onto trucks, or a few dozen trains, and taken to a port, and loaded onto ships. If the ship happens to be one of the very fast SL-7 transports the US Navy maintains for emergencies, it will then proceed to the Indian Ocean at 35 miles per hour. Is it any wonder it took the 27th Mechanized months to get to Saudi?
This is the mobility problem Rumsfeld and Shimenoseki are worried about. The Army currently has three air transportable units: 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain. Each has about ten thousand men, while the US deployed a half million in the Gulf war. Thirty thousand isn’t very many people to move around if things should go nuts. Particularly in more than one place at the same time. The Army doesn’t know where it may be asked to fight, but it wants to be ready when called. One possible solution is to go to lighter vehicles.
One thing the Army doesn’t want to do is go without armor. If you’ve seen Black Hawk Down you know why. But the weight of the M1 remains a problem. The C-130 and C-141 transport aircraft can’t carry it at all. While tracks remain the ultimate in off-road mobility, wheeled vehicles have come a long way since World War II. One tremendous advance has been the ability to modulate tire pressures from inside the vehicle. Modern wheeled armored vehicles like the Marine LAV can come within a whisker of their tracked brethren in terms of tactical mobility. They burn less gas and require less maintenance, which reduces the strain on the logistic system. That matters because getting troops to the battlefield isn’t enough, you have to supply them. Which requires more airplanes, and while the US Air Force is big, it isn’t that big. Anything that reduces logistical requirements helps. The Army hasn’t forgotten about the time that George S. Patton’s tanks ran out of gas. In war, logistics is everything. If you look at any battlefield you name, it will be located within a couple miles of an important river crossing or road junction. That isn’t coincidence.
Rumsfeld is probably betting that the Army can go without the Crusader and use air power as its artillery. It seems a fair bet, given recent experience. Precision guided munitions have finally given air power the decisive ability that Guido Douhet and Billy Mitchell were so adamant about. Against a dominant air force, like NATO employs, the only thing troops on the ground can do is curl up in their foxholes and pray. Or hide better.
I think this view dangerous. The experience in Bosnia, the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan suggests that air power can play a decisive role. But in all those cases, except Kosovo, air power’s hammer was matched by the anvil of a land army. Enter somebody's home town and they will fight, and accept the necessary casualties. Vietnam proved that. Air power is also very expensive, and limited both in available firepower and endurance. An artillery battery can put as much steel on target as an aircraft carrier for a fraction of the cost. And it’s always around somewhere when needed, not an hour’s flight away. Time matters when you have troops in contact.
The other issue air transportability. It is good that you can load eight or ten lighter vehicles onto a C-5. Now you’re down to fifty thousand flights to move a division. To do the Afghan War without the Northern Alliance might have required an army corps or two. Moving forces that size still takes ships and railroads. Period. I haven’t got the books here to do the calculations, but it doesn’t take very long before its just as fast, or faster, to use sea lift. Ships don’t care how heavy an M1 tank is.
What you sacrifice with the light armored vehicle is protection. Armor is heavy. The 64 ton weight of the M1 was dictated by the characteristics of its Chobham Armor. At 60 tons, the tank could be really well protected. Below sixty, protection took a big drop off.
A wheeled vehicle can be armored, but only enough to resist small arms fire, except maybe on the front glacis plate. The M2 .50 caliber machine gun located on top of almost every armored vehicle, and many trucks is capable of punching holes in them. And that’s not the only problem.
If you have watched the news you may have seen a rocket launcher and rocket whose tips looks like back to back cones joined at the base. That is an RPG-7 warhead, a direct development of the German Panzerfaust that so terrified Allied tankers during World War II. It kills tanks and other armored vehicles. They’re everywhere. Now reactive armor can help in facing shaped charge weapon like the RPG-7. But it is no panacea and requires a certain level of armor to work at all, because reactive armor is a bomb itself.
Now shoot one of those RPG-7’s at an M1. Congratulations, you have just pissed off an M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. And that’s the only thing you have done. Shoot twenty at it. You’ve still just pissed it off, unless you’re really lucky. Like The Hulk, tanks aren't very sociable when angry. They also possess an unexcelled ability to express the aforementioned fury.
The M1 has the ability to survive hits from other tanks and keep fighting. The same cannot be said about any light armored vehicle. If you mount a modern sighting system on an M4 Sherman even that mediocre tank is fully capable of taking on the most modern LAV. Why? Because it’s a real tank. There is a reason that so many World War II tanks are still in service in so many third world countries. Tanks are tough. The Wehrmacht gave the Army lots of experience fighting vehicles who could kill our tanks at long range and survive. They don’t want to repeat that again.
But there is yet another issue besides air transportability. In America and Europe we enjoy very good roads and bridges. Unless you live near some antique, the odds are that every bridge you cross will easily support an M1. More than one, in fact. That’s not true in most of the world. There are countries where the bridges capable of supporting an M1 can be counted on one hand. One of the first things you do when thinking about operating in another country is get good maps of the transportation systems, including weight ratings, clearance and so on. In most of the world, the transportation system is shitty. In the Congo, it is deliberately shitty. In war zones, battle damage may substantially reduce the carrying capabilities of roads and railroads. Staff officers have to take all of that into account when they plan.
Now sabotage to the transportation system is an old defensive trick. And the Army has thought of that too. They have bridging vehicles and engineers whose purpose is to repair and enhance so the Army can keep moving. But bridging takes time, and if you have only one bridge, there’s only one direction you can come from. Sort of makes it hard to surprise anyone. If you can use the indigenous roads then commanders have a lot more choices. Which makes the enemy’s problems more difficult. Surprise is often worth more than pure firepower. As Nathan Bedford Forrest used to say “the fustest with the mostest”often wins.
Another issue is that of intelligence. Ordinance expended does not matter. Ordinance on target does. More soldiers on the ground mean more intelligence, gotten quickly. If you can move a bit faster and learn what is important that may pay greater dividends in the long run than pure capabilities.
This ‘fighting light’ issue of the new Army is not simple, or obvious. Every choice involves significant sacrifice. There are no easy trade offs. Most of the forces we run into in the Third World will depend on infantry and man-portable weapons. On the other hand, the Gulf War was very much a conventional fight. Fighting light means you gain strategic mobility but lose combat power once engaged. If I were in Rumsfeld’s shoes, I’d keep the Crusader, and find other ways to lighten up. One choice is to move a couple regular infantry divisions to light armor, and then pair them up with a very armor heavy reserve unit so that they have the ability to fight heavy forces when needed. But I don't like the concept overall. The US Army is a professional army. Our soldiers are skilled. They are the products of years of training, thus difficult and expensive to replace. In fact, personnel costs remain by far the biggest single expense for the Pentagon. If people are your greatest resource and highest cost, you should structure your forces to take care of and best employ your people.
At the same time, Rumsfeld was disingenuous when he claimed that killing the Crusader saved $9 billion. The German PzH2000 gun Rumsfeld mentioned is very good, but weighs only slightly less and will cost only somewhat less, although it might arrive more quickly. Call the savings $3 billion, offset somewhat by the losses to American industry. It is no more a ‘new style’ weapon than the Crusader. Probably Rumsfeld saw a need to sacrifice something important to demonstrate his commitment to reform. It gives him more leverage with Congress. The Europeans will like it, and they have liked very little about the unilateralist Bush administration. In my view, the Crusader was killed more for political reasons than any military reason. But it is dead, if not the debate on the best direction for the U.S. Army.
Transitional Man wishes he were still at Mershon where he had access to Jane's guides and lots of other tasty references.