Rumsfeld asked Congress to cancel the Crusader program last month as part of a push to transform the U.S. military for 21st Century conflict with lighter, more advanced weapons.
The Crusader, which was conceived in 1994 and would be due to be fielded in 2008, is currently in a legislative limbo. The House voted in its fiscal 2003 defense bill to block President George W. Bush's bid to scrap it. The Senate Armed Services committee is considering a similar move. Bush has threatened to veto any defense bill that includes funds for Crusader.
The critics' statement opened a new, bare-knuckles phase in the battle to save the Crusader -- a self-propelled 155 mm howitzer designedd by United Defense Industries Inc. (NYSE:UDI - News) to outgun every other artillery piece ever fielded.
Support was also voiced for the program at a Washington news conference sponsored by the Crusader Industry Alliance, a trade group linking 50 suppliers and sub-contractors in 28 states. About $2 billion has already been spent on Crusader.
Phillip Coyle, who dealt with 200 major weapons acquisition programs as the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation from 1994 until last year, told reporters it seemed "odd" to him that the Pentagon wanted to kill Crusader for lighter, futuristic alternatives that existed only on paper.
At this point in its development, Crusader "looks as solid as any system I've seen," said Coyle, who said he did not stand to gain financially in any way from giving his personal opinion on the matter.
"When the Department of Defense takes money from a real program like Crusader, and throws it at a bunch of paper systems, it sets all of those systems up for failure," he said.
Retired Army Gen. John Tilelli, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 1996 to 2000, told the news conference he had been constantly concerned about the 10,300 artillery pieces fielded by North Korea, one of the nine countries that he said now outgunned the United States.
"And I believe Crusader would certainly be a most important component in our overall operational concept of defeating enemy massed artillery," added Tilelli, who acknowledged that he worked for a firm with a relationship with United Defense but said he spoke out because he believed in Crusader.
The Crusader is the most prominent weapons program to face cancellation since 1991, when then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney killed the Navy's A-12 fighter jet program. Litigation challenging that decision is pending.
In asking Congress to kill the program, Rumsfeld said on May 8 his decision involved "a strategy of warfare -- a strategy that drives the choices that we must make about how best to prepare our total forces for the future."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 16 that scrapping the big gun would extend a "window of risk" for U.S. troops.
QUESTIONS IN CONGRESS
House of Representatives Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts and three other lawmakers asked Rumsfeld on Wednesday to hand over internal documents on the rationale for killing Crusader.
Last month, the House passed its version of a spending resolution that would maintain $475 million in funding for Crusader in fiscal 2003, which starts on Oct. 1. The Senate Armed Services Committee is weighing a similar move despite a White House veto threat.
On May 30, Bush asked Congress to switch funds earmarked for Crusader in his 2003 spending plan to speed other Army plans, including Lockheed Martin Corp.'s (NYSE:LMT - News) Netfires missile development program and Raytheon Co (NYSE:RTN - News). Excalibur artillery shell, the first such satellite-guided 155 mm round.