Pentagon civil war

Robert Novak

5/27/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has delivered a death sentence for the Crusader mobile artillery system, but a bitter debate rages backstage in the Pentagon over the future role of tube artillery to protect the American infantryman. This battle surfaced over the past two weeks when the Army's chief of staff disagreed fundamentally -- in public -- with the Army's Afghanistan theater commander. "This is monumental," one Pentagon source told me. "It has shaken the Army to its institutional roots." The immediate question involves tactics by Operation Anaconda in March against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the Afghan war, on May 21, expressed doubt that Crusader would have been of use in Anaconda. On May 16, Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, testified that the proposed new system could have prevented American casualties. He was denying the claim by critics that Crusader is a relic of the Cold War. These contradictory statements are not easily reconciled. Largely overlooked, they augment passionate resentments within the Pentagon. One official went so far to suggest that Shinseki might become the 21st century version of Gen. Billy Mitchell, convicted by court martial after contradicting the Army brass by insisting on the value of air power. Shinseki was given an open invitation to leave last month when, without precedent, Rumsfeld announced the new chief of staff 14 months in advance of Shinseki's departure. The debate is so emotional because of seven U.S. soldiers killed in Operation Anaconda. Troops under intense al Qaeda mortar attack were unprotected by suppressive fire, with no artillery assigned and all aircraft grounded. The government line has been laid down by Michael Wynne, principal deputy under secretary for acquisition: The Crusader would not have helped in Afghanistan. Gen. John Keane, vice chief of staff (and Shinseki's designated successor), disagreed in March before Rumsfeld scrapped the Crusader. It would have helped in Anaconda, Keane told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 14, adding: "We could use Crusader as support for troops attacking in the mountains and get responsive artillery fire at considerable range and distance that we can't do with any of our other systems." By May 16, the Crusader had been stripped from the budget by Rumsfeld, who made it clear he would tolerate no lobbying for the doomed system from within his building. At a Senate Armed Services hearing that day, Shinseki was asked whether he agreed with Keane. "I do," he said. "In the first two days of Operation Anaconda," Shinseki testified, "28 of our 46 casualties were due to indirect fire from mortars. And it would have been in our interest to put together the capabilities to have turned those guns off, turn those mortars off, found them and be able to lift the burden of fire falling on our troops." So, the chief of staff continued, "we could have used and we would have used" cannon artillery at Anaconda. "Is that what Crusader is intended to be able to do?" asked Chairman Carl Levin. Listing tasks for artillery in that battle, Shinseki replied: "Crusader would have been capable of doing all these." That was contradicted by Gen. Franks at a press conference last week when asked whether the Crusader would have been used in Anaconda. "Candidly," he replied, "I don't think it would have," and then indicated it was just too heavy. Franks, an old field artillery officer, stunned brother officers when he said the fateful decision not to use tube artillery in Anaconda "was in fact a decision that was made at the tactical level ... And not only do I support the decision that was made, I actually agree with it." Inside the Pentagon, however, lurks deep suspicion that such a momentous decision could have been made at a low level. Congress probably cannot force President Bush to build the Crusader, but the battle is now over whether Army infantrymen will enter combat without traditional artillery cover. Rumsfeld was infuriated by the Army's talking points for Capitol Hill that contended "a decision to kill Crusader puts soldiers at risk" and forced out a mid-level official that he himself had appointed. Even so, concerns that sound like the talking points are now whispered in the Pentagon's corridors.