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Leaders say weapon system to be built in Oklahoma still on track

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Plans to assemble a self-propelled howitzer in Oklahoma appear on track now that the Pentagon has asked Congress for $475 million in funding for the artillery piece, military and political leaders say.

The money would fund the weapon _ called Crusader _ through testing next spring, when a decision will be made on further development.

Assembly work would be done at a plant in Elgin that would employ 150 people. Soldiers at nearby Fort Sill would train with the weapon, which has a 155 millimeter howitzer and a resupply vehicle.

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, said he and Army Secretary Thomas E. White are committed to the Crusader.

Shinseki said he hasn't heard anything from key lawmakers on the Armed Services committees that would lead him to believe the budget request won't be granted.

``The secretary and I are pretty comfortable that we made the right budgetary statements,'' Shinseki said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said he was relieved when the Pentagon asked for full funding in the 2003 fiscal year budget.

``We're going to get the first production money in '04,'' he said. ``Then we're going to get low-rate production models in '05.''

Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Norman, said he has talked to every major Pentagon player about the Crusader, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as other administration officials.

``I feel very optimistic, very good,'' Watts said. ``I don't anticipate there will be any major challenges. We will do whatever we have to do to make sure Crusader stays on track.''

The Crusader is supposed to replace the Paladin, the self-propelled howitzer used by the Army, and give the military a system that can shoot much farther and faster and keep up with tanks and troops on the battlefield.

The Army plans to buy 480 Crusader systems at a total cost of $11 billion.

According to United Defense LP, the prime contractor for the Crusader, a system prototype already has fired to a range of 40 kilometers and fired at a rate of 10.4 rounds per minute.

The Paladin has a range of 30 kilometers and can fire four rounds per minute.

The original Crusader weighed 60 tons and was criticized as being too heavy to fit in with the Army's goals of fielding a lighter, more mobile force.

It has since been pared back to 40 tons, allowing two Crusaders to fit on a C-17 transport plane.
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