Strykers fight enemies abroad, skeptics at home
SCOTT FONTAINE; Staff writer
The Strykers left before dawn and rolled into the land of canals and ditches. The assault began at daybreak.
Infantry platoons from Joint Base Lewis-McChord unloaded from their eight-wheeled carriers outside Marjah, Afghanistan, and came under fire as they slogged through soggy fields.
Forty-five Stryker vehicles fanned out. The soldiers inside fired mortars, moved the injured and wounded from the battlefield, monitored the fighting and took aim at enemy positions with the Mobile Gun System.
The troops of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division pushed the remaining insurgents out of the Trikh Zabur Canal area 12 days later. Less than two weeks after that, the soldiers relinquished authority of the area, boarded their Strykers and returned to their bases throughout southern Afghanistan, as far as 120 miles away.
The 31/2-week Marjah campaign, launched in early February and billed as the largest offensive of the eight-year-old Afghanistan war thus far, was a key test for the Strykers – the 21-ton infantry carriers that were born at Fort Lewis, came of age in Iraq and only since last summer have seen heavy fighting in Afghanistan.
“It would have been difficult to impossible to do the mission we did in Marjah without the Strykers,” said Lt. Col. Burton Shields.
He commands the brigade’s 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and led about 400 soldiers during the operation. They secured the area and restricted enemy movement so thousands of Marines could lay siege to Taliban strongholds.
Shields praised the vehicles’ network capabilities and the way they move his men across long distances on short notice. He also noted the versatility of the Stryker’s multiple designs; nine of the 10 variants were used at Marjah.
Some skeptics, however, have questioned using Strykers in Afghanistan, where the terrain is rougher than that of Iraq and roadside bombs are taking a heavy toll.
Twenty-seven soldiers from 5th Brigade have died inside Strykers since the unit deployed in July, including one blast on Oct. 27 that killed seven soldiers. That bomb, later estimated to contain more than 1,000 pounds of explosives, was the deadliest single attack on Lewis-McChord soldiers in recent memory and prompted Vice President Joe Biden to visit Tacoma for the memorial service.
A noncommissioned officer serving with 5th Brigade told the Washington Times last year that his comrades call the vehicle a “Kevlar coffin.” And the brigade, the first Stryker unit sent to South Asia, has formally asked the Army to make the vehicle more resistant to improvised explosive devices.
“The Stryker unit that went into southern Afghanistan ran into some pretty heavy IEDs – hundreds of pounds of explosive weight,” Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told lawmakers at a Senate hearing March 3. “It did suffer some significant casualties. We’ve been working very hard on this over time to increase the survivability of the Stryker.”
WEAPONRY IN A NEW WORLD
It was more than 10 years ago that Gen. Eric Shinseki announced the Army’s controversial plan to create brigades built around a medium-weight infantry carrier.
Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, delivered a speech in October 1999 in which he said the Cold War-era force needed a versatile alternative that could move quickly into battlefields across the world.
This sparked a debate: Should the new vehicles be on wheels or tracks? How heavy is too heavy? How light is too light?
The Pentagon tapped the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to become its test brigade. It received its first shipment of vehicles in June 2002, and took them to war 18 months later.
Today, what began as an experiment at Fort Lewis has transformed into seven brigades Army-wide, four of which got their start at the local installation.
It led to a decade-long troop buildup at Fort Lewis, sparked a building boom and pumped millions into the South Sound economy. About 32,000 soldiers now serve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, up from about 17,000 when the Stryker transformation began.
The Stryker program initially attracted many critics, though most have been silenced after seeing the vehicles’ success on the proving grounds of Iraq. The brigades have been sent to the scene of some of the most intense fighting of both wars.
Special Operations Forces, including Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, also have used the vehicle in combat.
Its supporters love the flexibility, speed, offensive posture and range.
“The Stryker just gives stuff no other system can,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, now in Baghdad province. “It’s got 360-degree security. It’s got lethality. It’s got mobility. It’s got range. As far as the platform goes, I wouldn’t want to be in anything else.”
Huggins deployed with 3rd Brigade in 2006-07. That tour saw his unit serve in Mosul, Baghdad and Diyala; whenever one region of the country would flare up, the Strykers were sent in.
In Iraq these days, however, some have questioned why the military doesn’t use more non-Stryker vehicles, given the slower pace of combat.
The 4th Brigade deployed to Baghdad with about 320 Strykers, 190 Humvees and 70 Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The latter provides more protection against the blast of a roadside bomb, the most lethal weapon used in Iraq today, but Huggins said soldiers must stay ready to fight, even though violence has ebbed to its lowest levels since the months after the 2003 invasion.
“When I drop that ramp, nine pissed-off dudes come flying out the back,” the 44-year-old Honolulu native said. “That’s really who brings the fight. You can’t do that with a Humvee, and you sure as hell can’t do that with an MRAP.”
STILL SOME SKEPTICS
The Stryker program has always had its critics.
Victor O’Reilly, an Irish author who wrote a report panning the vehicle for a congressman before the first Stryker deployment in 2003, still isn’t convinced.
He told The News Tribune this month that the brigades’ success is a credit to the soldiers and the onboard technology, not the vehicle itself.
O’Reilly listed nine objections to the Stryker, including its vulnerability to roadside bombs, its poor off-road performance, its high price, and military officials selling the system as being suitable for “full-spectrum warfare,” which he said is untrue.
“I was, and remain, a critic of the vehicle not because I thought it was hopeless – it started life as an entirely adequate armored car – but because I felt there were better and more cost-effective alternatives,” O’Reilly wrote in an e-mail, “and because the evidence suggested the choice of the Stryker owed more to politics than performance.”
The Army originally committed to spend $4 billion on the program, which quickly became a political issue. Whether the new vehicle would be on wheels or treads also was a point of contention. So was whether its size prohibited it from being airlifted quickly into battle.
At one point in 2002, brigade soldiers loaded a Stryker inside a C-130 Hercules transport plane before a crowd of lawmakers and Pentagon brass to prove it could be done.
The Stryker’s earliest critics pointed to its vulnerability to rocket-propelled grenades and said it wasn’t suitable for urban combat. After its panel armor failed ballistic tests in 2003, O’Reilly said the vehicle still had to prove it could operate after being hit by a first round of enemy gunfire.
Many questions wouldn’t be answered until the 3,600 soldiers of 3rd Brigade deployed in December 2003, destined for Samarra, Balad and Mosul.
Since then, the Army has deployed a Stryker brigade to Iraq 10 more times.
The Army plans to add at least one more brigade in the next few years.
DOUBTS ALSO IN AFGHANISTAN
The same questions that preceded the Stryker’s first Iraq deployments swirled around Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade last year as it prepared to become the first Stryker unit sent into Afghanistan.
Critics charged that the country’s terrain – which ranges from steep mountainsides to flat, sandy deserts – would prove too much for the Stryker. Supporters pointed to positive results during field testing of the vehicle in harsh landscapes. They cited the Canadian military’s successful use of the Light Armored Vehicle III in southern Afghanistan since 2003. (The Stryker design is a modification of the LAV III; both are built by General Dynamics.)
Shields, the commander of 4-23 Infantry, acknowledged that the vehicle doesn’t perform as well off roads. His unit began its deployment in mountainous Zabul province, later moved to desert-like Helmand and participated in the Marjah operation, where they battled amid canals and ditches.
“In some of the more restrictive terrain, there are some limitations – but that’s nothing we didn’t know,” Shields said. But, he added later, “neither (the MRAP nor the new MRAP all-terrain vehicle) has as good of an off-road performance as the Stryker.”
Among the drawbacks, Shields said: An MRAP isn’t a fighting vehicle and weighs considerably more than a Stryker; an M-ATV can haul only five soldiers.
Robert Haddick, the managing editor of the influential Small Wars Journal publication, wrote a damning article in November bluntly titled “Why Don’t Stryker Brigades Work in Afghanistan?”
Troops should stay off roads and disperse themselves among the greatest number of vehicles to counter the threat of bombs, Haddick wrote. He called the use of the smaller all-terrain vehicle promising.
“An M-ATV carries five soldiers compared with the Stryker’s 13 and may have better off-road capability,” he wrote. “Compared to the Stryker, M-ATV would disperse soldiers in more vehicles and avoid some of the risks of being on Afghanistan’s roads.”
BOMBS BIGGEST PROBLEM
The real solution, Haddick concluded, lies not in the proper vehicle but in defeating the bomb network – something Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other high-ranking Pentagon officials have vowed to do.
Taliban insurgents have shifted their attacks almost exclusively to the detonation of roadside bombs and land mines. A change in technology to pressure-plated detonators and fertilizer explosives has made production cheaper, attacks harder to defeat and the results deadlier for NATO troops.
All but three of 5th Brigade’s 34 reported casualties have come from bombs, both on foot patrols and inside Strykers.
The brigade’s vehicles – not limited to Strykers – have sustained about 50 “catastrophic kills” during the deployment, and the brigade as a whole has had nearly 450 encounters with enemy bombs, according to brigade spokesman Capt. Adam Weece.
The Washington Times published a story in November in which soldiers serving in Kandahar province questioned the use of the Stryker for their mission and nicknamed it the “Kevlar coffin.”
A soldier quoted in the story had survived two blasts in six weeks, but his company had lost at least two soldiers in Strykers within a month and his platoon had seen three of its four Strykers destroyed. The frequency and lethality of bomb strikes put soldiers constantly on edge.
An internal Department of the Army memo dated March 2 about Stryker upgrades obtained by The News Tribune makes reference to an operational needs statement requesting “additional survivability enhancements” for their vehicles.
Weece told The News Tribune the needs statement was classified.
“I can tell you that any vehicle or equipment assessment during or following deployment is commonplace, is part of our duty to our comrades, and there is especially a lot of interest to determine Stryker vehicle performance since we are the first unit to bring them to Afghanistan,” he wrote in an e-mail.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, chairs a House armed forces subcommittee with oversight of many of the Pentagon’s weapons programs. He said the Stryker is the right infantry carrier for Afghanistan today and into the future.
“I’m still hearing that it is right vehicle,” Smith said. “It does have the flexibility and maneuverability they’re looking for. That seems to be the judgment of the Army up to this point.”
MISSIONS SHIFT IN IRAQ
The swift-moving, urban infantry battles that were the norm in the bloodiest years of the Iraq war have all but disappeared. The two Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades now on a yearlong tour there have shifted to missions that largely include meeting with local leaders and training Iraqi soldiers.
Fleets of MRAPs fill parking lots at American military bases across the country. But more than 10 Lewis-McChord soldiers currently deployed to Iraq and interviewed for this story were unanimous in their desire to ride in Strykers.
The Stryker puts soldiers in an offensive posture because four gunners provide 360-degree security, the soldiers said. The MRAP, meanwhile, has one gunner. And while the Stryker is designed to carry infantrymen into a fight, the MRAP is simply designed to transport people.
“The MRAP is designed to survive a blast,” said Maj. Eric Lopez, the operations officer for 3rd Brigade. “The Stryker is designed to prevent the blast in the first place.”
Most of the Lewis-McChord Stryker troops in Iraq today do their jobs in urban settings, where ambushes can come from any angle. Several soldiers stressed that the sight of Strykers rolling down the street acts as a deterrent.
“No one is scared of a Humvee or an MRAP,” said Sgt. Jed Glover, an infantryman with 4th Brigade. “They see a Stryker, and there’s a fear factor going on. No other vehicle rolls down the road as fast and as silent and as gunned-up as we do.”
The decision to use a particular vehicle – Stryker, Humvee or MRAP – often depends on the condition of roadways and the request of the Iraqi army unit leading the mission.
Maj. Matthew Holly, the operations officer of 3rd Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, acknowledged that the MRAP can handle large blasts better than a Stryker but said MRAPs come under attack more frequently.
Soldiers also panned the MRAP for its size, which makes it too big to fit into some areas, and its high center of gravity, which increases the odds of a rollover.
“The MRAP is a kneejerk reaction to protect people in transit from Point A to Point B,” Huggins said. “It is not a fighting platform.”
Lt. Col. Joseph Davidson has been assigned to 3rd Brigade since May 2002 and deployed three times to Iraq from Lewis-McChord.
Davidson commands the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, one of the few units still doing regular offensive and security operations – though far fewer than during the worst days of the war. His soldiers work alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces conducting daily checkpoint operations and about 90 patrols monthly in northern Diyala.
His cavalry squadron uses MRAPs in its security platoon, but that’s out of necessity: There aren’t enough Strykers for each platoon.
“What you don’t want in this counterinsurgency atmosphere is to be put in a defensive position,” said Davidson, a Seattle resident. “The unfortunate nature of the MRAP is that it puts you in a defensive posture.
“So, at least in my opinion, the Stryker is still the way to go.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-597-8646