Stryker MGS: Problems in the Field
In February 2006, “New Stryker Variants Gear Up for Testing” described the M1128 Stryker Mobile Gun System, and the M1135 Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle. The vehicles passed testing and have been fielded to Army units, but Military.com reports that the M1128 MGS is experiencing serious problems in the field. Comments like these are not what a manufacturer like General Dynamics, or a military, wants to hear:
“I wish [the enemy] would just blow mine up so I could be done with it,” said [4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment] Spec. Kyle Handrahan, 22, of Anaheim, Calif.”
What seems to be the trouble?
According to Christian Lowe’s “New Stryker Faring Poorly in Field“, a computer system that consistently locks up is the beginning of the trouble. “Blue screen of death” jokes aside, this is a serious issue in a heavily computerized vehicle like the Stryker. To add to the platform’s woes, a shortage of spare parts in the system is apparently creating low availability rates, and an inadequate cooling system is a serious handicap in the Middle East’s withering heat. In order to keep the crew from heatstroke, special suits must be worn that circulate cold water underneath the garment’s surface. Aside from the accompanying mobility and maintenance issues, crew members are complaining that they’re becoming chilled rather than cooled.
Lowe’s article received some pushback, including this quote:
“At this time in my opinion am one of the most combat experienced MGS vehicle commanders in the army today. I have fired 58 rounds in a combat situation…none of them were just for fun rounds. I have used the MGS in every manner possible and used it for things it was not tatically supposed to be used for. It pisses me of that only 1 or 2 guys were asked about this vehicle in 4-9 INF, 4/2bde… I just want the vehicle to get a fair chance and for people who think it a waste of tax dollars to realize that we now control the battlefield both cross country and urban.”
On the other side of the ledger, however, Bloomberg News’ Jan 28/08 “General Dynamics Stryker Job on Hold Until Fix Proven (Update1)” reports that the FY 2008 defense bill will hold up a $484 million contract with General Dynamics. The Army reportedly wants to award the contract by April 2008, but won’t be able to do so until Army Secretary Pete Geren certifies the Stryker Mobile Gun System is “reliable and effective” for combat – a grade it did not earn from Pentagon Director of Test and Evaluation Charles McQueary, whose annual weapons report gave the M1128 a “not yet operationally effective” rating and added that new problems were “continuing to emerge.”
The other constraint facing Stryker MGS vehicles in theater is not mechanical, or even budgetary. The new US Army/ Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual [Amazon.com book purchase | PDF download] stresses a number of points, but one of the most consistent is that the COIN force must be the population’s protector, even if that means enhanced risk. Naturally, there’s a balancing point based on ethical duties to one’s soldiers and common sense. Unfortunately for Spec. Handrahan and his fellow Stryker AGS operators, the M1128’s 105mm gun is finding itself on the long end of that balance in many cases, with the scales tipped against its use. Spec. Handrahan may say that:
“You can kick down doors and risk losing our guys. Or I can just knock down the building from a [kilometer] away and call it a day.”
Except that US military’s doctrine is generally stacked against that approach, and his officers are trained in that doctrine. War is unpredictable, of course, which could make the M1128 a useful “insurance policy” for high-risk missions. That insurance policy will have lower value, however, if the system itself is seen as questionably reliable, and/or if substitutes exist.
Both factors appear to be at work.
The Bloomberg report makes it abundantly clear that reliability and readiness are real issues with the Stryker MGS at this point. On the substitute front, M142 HIMARS or M270 rocket launchers can fire M30 GMLRS rockets from 60+ km/ 40 miles away, or ATACMS missiles from up to 300km away, with GPS-guided precision. They cannot match the M1128’s “through that window” accuracy, but their drop-down attack offers no risk of going right through the building and hitting another, and their accuracy level is considered good enough for use in crowded urban areas. Which helps to explain the GMLRS’ positive reviews, and why 465 expensive ATACMS missiles have been fired to date during Operation Iraqi Freedom. If there are no enemy armored vehicles to be engaged, massed attacks that require cannister shot are rare, and GPS-guided rockets can perform a similar role against fortified structures with better readiness and less risk, it shouldn’t be surprising that M1128 operators have a lot of free time in theater.
There is still a viable role for an assault gun platform in modern military doctrine. France, for example, has operated its wheeled AMX-10RC successfully for many years. Likewise, recall the quote Christian received as pushback to his story. Rifle-shot heavy-caliber precision, with instant response and excellent strategic and/or tactical mobility, has its place on the battlefield. A 105mm shell is also cheaper than a 300 km ATACMS missile, by several orders of magnitude.
In order to fully prove its worth, however, the M1128 Stryker AGS will need to ensure that its readiness and maintenance problems are fixed, that it’s put in situations where doctrine or terrain are not its enemy, and that improvements in key substitutes don’t crowd it off of the battlefield.
Those situations can and do exist in key conflict areas around the world. The region of Chad/ Sudan/ Ethiopia, for instance, offers potential situations that play to the MGS’ strengths, as they have to the AMX-10RC’s. Thus far, however, that doesn’t appear to have been the case very often on the front line in Iraq. For a number of reasons, not least of which is the difficulty wheeled vehicles have with assault requirements in Afghanistan’s terrain, the Afghan theater doesn’t offer a better opportunity.
(DID thanks reader Simon Hughes for his heads-up re: the DefenseTech follow-up.)
- Ottawa Citizen, David Pugliese’s Defence Watch (Feb 14/08) – Iraq – Front Line Views on the Mobile Gun System in Combat. Email from a Platoon Sgt. who operates the MGS in Iraq. He believes it won’t replace the M1 Abrams tanks, but says it gives US forces new urban options.