M1126 Strykers in Combat: Experiences & Lessons
The nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight received unexpectedly positive reviews when it spoke to soldiers who served in Strykers and appreciated the vehicles’ capabilities and stealth. Russian analyst Vasiliy Fofanov, who wasn’t generally inclined to give American equipment in Iraq high marks, likewise gave a positive review of the vehicle.
Now a conference call from Mosul has added more specifics to the soldiers’ review, and so has a recent article in National Defense Magazine.
The Battlefield Reviews
Colonel Robert Brown commands the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, operating in Mosul and the surrounding region in the northwest part of Iraq. They’re also known as the US Army’s second Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Elements of this command have been covered by journalist Michael Yon, who has done truly excellent work while embedded on his own initiative with “Deuce Four” (1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment) in Mosul.
At one point in a recent conference call (State Dept. transcript here), Col. Brown was asked:
Q: Sir, this is Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. We met back in November when I was up there. I have an equipment question. Not only are you fighting the insurgents, but you’re the highlight unit for the Stryker, that’s gotten mixed publicity. We were told by The Washington Post earlier this year that it could be unsafe for soldiers to ride in. Give me the unvarnished assessment of how well the vehicle has performed and what are some of the weaknesses that need to be corrected.
What followed was a pretty impassioned response. Some excerpts:
“The Stryker’s fantastic. It has incredible mobility, incredible speed. It has saved hundreds of my soldiers’ lives. I’m telling you hundreds of their lives. We’ve been hit by 84 suicide VBIEDs [JK: car bombs] have hit Strykers, and I’ve had the greater majority of soldiers walk away without even a scratch. It’s absolutely amazing. If I were in any other type vehicle, I would’ve had huge problems.
…And I love the other vehicles in the Army inventory. I had a Bradley battalion, but there’s no way you could take a Bradley two years in a row in combat. You couldn’t do it maintenance wise. We maintained over 95 percent operational readiness rate. We went — with 5.2 million miles on the Strykers — 5.2 million miles, and I will tell you, interestingly enough, that same Washington Post reporter, after that report came out, he came to me and he said, please, Colonel Brown, do not make me ride in a Humvee. He said please, let me ride in a Stryker. And I was too nice a guy. I should have made him ride in a Humvee. I let him ride in a Stryker.”
Survivability? Russian analyst Vasiliy Fofanov may have had good reason to be impressed. Col. Brown:
“We were hit by 115 RPGs hit Strykers over the year we had here, not one penetrated a Stryker, not one. Not any — no machine gun fire penetrated a Stryker inside. We did have a soldier that was killed in a hatch by an RPG — standing up in a hatch, and they fired from a building on top, but not one RPG penetrated a Stryker; 115 hits, it’s a fantastic vehicle. …Does it need improvements? I don’t know of any vehicle that doesn’t. I’d put a laser range-finder on it. I’d stabilize the gun, maybe put a larger gun on it. The Army’s working all that. Is it a fantastic vehicle? Yes.”
The M1126 Stryker’s main armor protects against 14.5 mm rounds, shrapnel, and overpressure, and serving Strykers in combat zones have been augmented with “steel cage” slat armor mounted on the sides as a defense against RPG-7 anti-tank rounds. Slat armor got its start in Iraq as field expedients for some Hummers, but soon became a standardized, procured Stryker kit. The 2.5 ton armor add-on is designed to detonate the piezo-electric fuze in the RPG’s nose, and “misfocus” the shaped-charge jet. Weapons like the RPG-7 with PG-7VR tandem warhead or an RPG-29 weapon might give such armor more trouble; indeed, they are effective even against some main battle tanks with reactive armor add-ons. Fortunately, they appear to have been quite rare in Iraq.
Maj. Nicholas Mullen is rear detachment commander of the 25th ID’s 1st Brigade. He echoed his commander’s words in a National Defense Magazine article:
“I was here [at Fort Lewis] when they came up with the slat armor. Everybody’s like, ‘oh, it’s a birdcage. It’ll never do anything…” A month into operations in Iraq, his unit was doing a cordon-and-search operation with the Iraqi army at a mosque in Mosul. “We’d gotten a tip that insurgents were holding a meeting in one of the rooms off the mosque. I’m 50 feet from a Stryker that got hit with three rocket-propelled grenades. And everybody’s okay. One kid got a little shrapnel from a mortar round.”
“I’ve seen it hit with multiple rocket-propelled grenades and keep going. I’ve seen it hit with vehicle-borne bombs that you wonder how anybody could have survived – and everybody walks away.”
If you want a very vivid report about a Stryker that parked right on top of an IED, and what happened next, read Michael Yon’s “Angels Among Us.”
Even Lt. Col. William James own brigade, the Army’s first SBCT (3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who deployed to Iraq before 25ID rotated in) had its share of skeptics at first:
“I was a skeptic a couple of years ago,” said Maj. Doug Baker, executive officer of the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment in 3/2. “If you were off-road in Louisiana, there was a tendency to get stuck. You really couldn’t get the Stryker through some areas where a Ford F-250 would get through… once you were on a highway, you’re going 70 miles an hour very easily.”
Bottom line for Maj. Baker, after being in Iraq with it?
“When you rolled out the gate, you were fairly confident that that vehicle was going to take care of you… I’m familiar with what a Bradley can do. It’s a fantastic vehicle, but I would take a Stryker over it in Iraq any day.”
In his teleconference, meanwhile, Col. Brown of 25ID noted that he had also commanded an M113 company with General Casey at Fort Carson, CO. While he spoke favorably of the M113 Gavin, the Stryker clearly impressed him more. He even added specifics re: the Stryker vs. M2/M3 Bradley comparison. The Bradley may have better slugging and staying power in a high-intensity battlefield like The Thunder Run, but…
TONY CAPACCIO: “Colonel, do you have any specific tactical instances where in the city Mosul these vehicles accomplished more than a tank could of or a Bradley could have, given their construction and their mobility?”
COL. BROWN: “How much time do you have? Because I could give you an example every single night. I’ll give you one example of a company. In Deuce Four, 1-24 Infantry, a young company commander out being very agile and adaptive, he went out, and during the day some cars drove by and fired at the Strykers. They chased the cars in the Stryker. You wouldn’t have been able to keep up in a tank or a Bradley. They chased the cars. The guys got out of the car and being, again, the cowards that they are, they hid behind women and children, so the soldiers didn’t shoot them. But they went up to the cars. They found caches of weapons in the cars, and they found their wallets in the cars. They then went to some sources who said, yeah, we know where these guys live. So two hours later, they went and raided the home with one platoon, captured some more. Those guys talked. They went and raided more.
By the end of the night, one night, one Stryker company, about 120 soldiers, about, you know, 14 Strykers involved, went seven different locations, captured 15 out of 20 terrorist cell members, captured mortar systems, sniper rifles, a very large cache of weapons, et cetera, all that was mobile, all in cars. And they were able to get their quickly using their digital capability, using the speed of the Stryker, and oh, by the way, maintained perfect situational understanding at this time using a UAV up above and all the digital systems in what the Stryker affords. And the biggest thing the Stryker affords is nine infantrymen out in this urban setting — this was all in a city, population of 2 million — a very populated area, downtown city area that this happened. So that’s one example.”
That certainly sounds like Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla and Deuce-Four’s M.O. In fact, if you want the full details, read Deuce-Four embed Michael Yon’s report. What Deuce-Four did wasn’t easy by any means: coordinating things so units arrive where they need to be, on time in an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous urban area, sometimes at night, while maintaining good situational awareness throughout and executing operations in a steady cascade. When DID and other sources talk about “network-centric warfare,” Deuce-Four’s operation in Mosul is a small example of what we’re talking about.
Col. Brown also discusses the Stryker’s mobility angle in his teleconference, and notes the ease with which he has redeployed Strykers from Fallujah to Mosul and back, quickly, with a smaller fuel logistics tail. Their mobility and advanced communications even allowed some units to successfully execute other missions that came down while the Strykers were in transit, and still arrive in time to be helpful.
Other mobility criticisms have centered around the Stryker’s air-transportability by C-130 intra-theater tactical transport aircraft. The mobility Col. Brown described above is one reason this didn’t bother the SBCT soldiers very much when POGO asked about it. National Defense Magazine’s article also notes that:
“It does fit on a C-130. I’ve flown in one with it,” said Lt. Col. William James, deputy commander of first SBCT (3rd Brigade, 2ID).
One should note here that the steel cage slat armor creates C-130 weight and fit issues if it’s mounted or included, that preparation time and effort before and after air transport is a factor to ask about, and that other Stryker variants have different weight and size profiles than the M1126 Stryker ICV (Infantry Carrier Vehicle). In fairness, one should also note that the new C-130J has slightly better lift capabilities.
Thoughts and Lessons
Editorial disclosure: Like POGO, I haven’t always been a big fan of the Stryker. Reports from foreign analysts with no axe to grind, and even more so from front line troops who have served with it in combat, are changing my mind.
It’s quite clear that the day of the heavy vehicles – main battle tanks, M2 Bradleys, et. al. – isn’t done. Not by a long shot. The durability, cross-country mobility, and firepower of the M2/M3 Bradleys and their M1 Abrams companions matter when intelligence fails, or close combat with armor-equipped enemy forces is inevitable. The Battle of Thunder Run that collapsed Baghdad’s defenses provides one example. Embed Greg Grant’s description of the surprise encounter at Objective Peach by Task Force 3-69 on April 2, 2003 is another – an encounter at a bridge over the Euphrates that reminds us of the limits of even “transformative” situational awareness. The September 2004 Battle of Fallujah was another engagement that conclusively demonstrated the value of full-scale main battle tanks like the M1, which were clearly necessary when facing heavily-armed resistance in urban terrain.
So the Stryker is not a substitute, as some of its original proponents had hoped. Instead, Col. Brown’s comparisons to the heavier M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle show the Stryker as a complementary vehicle with different strengths. For sustained operations in cities or favourable terrain, a quieter vehicle that can survive basic IED and RPG attacks, travels quickly, holds up well through high mileage, lacks pavement-damaging steel tracks, and is equipped with advanced C4ISR communications, “Blue Force Tracker” software and displays, et. al. appears to have definite advantages.
The Stryker clearly fits that bill, but it isn’t the only option. Nations who can keep these lessons in mind and put together similar sets of capabilities can enjoy similar advantages in related situations.
As the National Defense Magazine article notes, doctrine for Stryker Brigade Combat Teams has been a work in progress, and that work is still ongoing. More than anything else, it is precisely this doctrine and understanding of how to use the SBCTs which is beginning to emerge from experiences in Iraq.
On one level, therefore, these front-line testimonials are a testament to the Stryker vehicle specifically. It was the General Dynamics M1126 Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle that carried these soldiers through their tours of duty, after all. On another level, however, what has been validated is elements of a broader concept of warfare linked to the “transformation” efforts underway in a number of countries.
Note that we say “transformation efforts,” not “wheeled vehicles.” These two items have become connected in some observers’ minds, but it needn’t be so. An upgraded M113A4 tracked APC fitted with reactive armor and/or slats, a quiet hybrid drive plus rubber band tracks, and advanced communications gear could display several of the Stryker’s advantages plus some of its own, and fit into similar doctrine very easily. So could advanced vehicles like BAE Hagglunds’ SEP, mentioned in DID’s coverage of the Czech government’s $800 million APC competition.
Countries like the Czech Republic and Taiwan, which recently announced the beginning of full production for its indigenous CM-32 Yunpao (“Cloud Leopard”) Stryker substitute, will get the full benefit of their new equipment only if they keep these experiential and doctrinal lessons in mind.
The same is true for other militaries around the world, as they all strive to learn the lessons of modern warfare in the way of the wise: from the experiences of others.
Recent Stryker Contracts
GD GDLS Defense Group L.L.C. (Joint Venture) in Sterling Heights, MI received a $7.1 million modification to a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for Repairs for Stryker Vehicles. Work will be performed at Fort Lewis, WA (80%), Sterling Heights, MI (10%), and Anniston, AL (10%), and is expected to be complete by Sept. 30, 2006. This was a sole source contract initiated on June 30, 2005 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, Warren, MI (DAAE07-02-C-B001).
The firm was also awarded a $6.4 million modification to a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for field service repair support to the Stryker. Work will be performed in Sterling Heights, MI and is expected to be complete by Sept. 30, 2006. This was also a sole source contract, initiated March 17, 2005 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, Warren, MI (DAAE07-02-C-B001).
Additional Readings & Updates
- Project on Government Oversight (May 15/07) – Strykers Losses Raise Questions on Light-Armor Approach. The Stryker/LAV-III does not offer a full blast-deflection design against land mine attacks. That has become problematic in Diyala Province, Iraq.
- US Army (Jan 3/07) – Stryker Increases Troops’ Survivability. “A 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team Soldier told [ that he survived 11 different IEDs and went home safely with the rest of his unit, recalled [Raymond Lopez, senior logistical analyst of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team Program Executive Office] with pride… We have Strykers drive away from an IED strike with all eight tires flat, roll into the (forward operating base), get refitted with new tires and equipment and be back on the streets within hours. That’s significantly different than a tracked vehicle. An IED strike that breaks the track of a Bradley or M1A2 (Abrahams) tank will disable the vehicle for several hours until the crew can either repair the track or get the vehicle evacuated by other means. Those long hours sitting in a kill zone of an IED strike can be dangerous times for Soldiers with the enemy still watching…”
- US Army, “Warrior’s Corner” series (Oct 3/06) – Brigadier General Carter Ham, “Stryker: Meeting the Challenge in Iraq” . Brig.-Gen. Ham served in northern Iraq, where the Stryker Brigades were deployed. DID also has an enhanced trascript of the session.
- DID (Sept 30/06) – A Month in the Life: Sept 2006 Stryker Contracts.
- DID (June 9/06) – Sounding Out the Stryker Fleet. A very interesting maintenance approach from the folks at Purdue University.
- Nov 2/05: Like Michael Yon, journalist David Axe spent time in Strykers while in Iraq. He adds some brief thoughts and links.