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The Seattle Times September 6, 2003

Stryker readiness questioned

It's the first new combat vehicle in 20 years, intended to make the Army more mobile, but critics say design flaws render the Stryker vulnerable

By Ray Rivera and Hal Bernton; Seattle Times staff reporters

FORT LEWIS, Pierce County In the woodsy confines of this sprawling base, the Army's 3,600-member Stryker brigade yesterday went through final training exercises, assaulting mock villages and searching for enemy insurgents.

Next month it's for real.

But as the soldiers prepare to make their combat debut in Iraq, the vehicles that will carry them through hostile territory are under attack from skeptics, who say they are too vulnerable to enemy fire.

The Strykers are the first new combat vehicle in 20 years and a cornerstone in the Army's efforts to transform itself into a new, 21st-century fighting force. Critics say the eight-wheeled vehicles each costing an average of $1.5 million may be a costly misstep on that path. The Army recently discovered flaws in the Stryker's ceramic composite armor and is racing to fix it. The vehicle's remote weapon systems can't be fired accurately on the move, and soldiers must get out of the vehicle to reload, exposing them to enemy fire.

Such criticisms have reached Congress, which is awaiting final operational test reports before deciding whether to certify the unit, and the vehicles, for combat.

"The Stryker is ... uniquely controversial it's such a different idea," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst at Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org. "You've got people jumping up and down and screaming bloody murder over this, and you have people who are willing to let the Army try it and see what happens. And everyone will be watching to see how effective they are in Iraq."

The Stryker vehicles are intended to support a nimble, high-tech fighting force that can offer more firepower, battlefield intelligence and troop protection than a traditional light-infantry brigade equipped with thin-skinned Humvees.

And the Stryker vehicles, unlike cumbersome tank brigades, can be flown rather than shipped to hot spots around the world.

Army officials won congressional approval to buy $4 billion worth of the vehicles enough money to outfit six Stryker brigades with more than 2,100 of the vehicles. The first two brigades are stationed at Fort Lewis.

Among the vehicle's supporters are the soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, who will take some 300 vehicles to Iraq when they're deployed in late October or early November.

"The Strykers get us right to the objective without us losing all that energy," said Sgt. Taalo Lauofo. The 27-year-old squad leader from American Samoa transferred to the unit from a traditional light-infantry unit, where soldiers were used to lugging 80-pound packs miles to get to a battle zone.

But even the squads recognize its limitations.

"I think what's gotten lost is that the Stryker is an infantry carrier. It's designed to move my soldiers to the point of attack and then provide support. It's a carrier vehicle, not a fighter vehicle," said Lt. Col. Buck James, who commands a battalion that operates 72 Stryker vehicles.

That concept was underscored during training exercises yesterday, as a half-dozen Strykers cautiously approached a mock village filled with soldiers dressed as civilians. The vehicles set up fire positions outside the village as troops swarmed out of the vehicles SWAT style, clearing buildings one by one.

The vehicles followed behind, providing extra fire support and a quick escape in case of ambush.

One of James' concerns is the vehicle's remote firing systems, which require them to be at a standstill to fire accurately, and must be reloaded from outside the safety of the vehicle.

James said they were looking for ways to mitigate those problems, and soldiers have learned to reload as fast as they can.

"I've got it down to about 30 to 40 seconds," said Spc. Jason Groves, a vehicle commander and gunner.

Congressional committees that oversee the Army have taken note of the Stryker's limitations.

In May, the House Armed Services Committee balked at committing a full $955 million to fund Stryker brigades in the next fiscal year.

Instead, the bill would condition $300 million of the spending on submission of a new Defense Department report. The committee wanted the Army to look at ways to modify the brigade equipment to provide more firepower and a wider range of combat options.

Meanwhile, Army officials and contractors are working out the final kinks in the vehicles. Just last month, Army officials discovered manufacturing problems with inner armor plates intended to block heavy machine-gun fire.

Each vehicle is covered with 132 plates designed to protect against up to 14.5-mm fire, slightly bigger than a .50-caliber bullet. But a subcontractor hired to provide the armor apparently deviated from the standards and at least one variation failed in a test firing, Army officials said.

The full extent of the plate problem is unknown, but it's serious enough that the Army has launched a top-priority test of all plates at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, with replacement tiles expected to be put on the brigade's vehicles later this month.

The Stryker brigade also is heading off to Iraq without a separate outer layer of plates designed to protect against rocket-propelled grenades, which insurgents have used again and again to deadly effect against U.S. troops in Iraq.

These plates are not scheduled to be ready for use until sometime next year. So the Army is installing an interim system a steel cage that surrounds the sides of the vehicle. It's designed to explode grenades away from the vehicle.

But the armor is far from perfect protection. An initial rocket-propelled grenade, for example, could destroy the armor, exposing the two-member crew and up to nine soldiers riding inside to deadly fire.

If a Stryker does get taken out by enemy fire in Iraq, the critics may be quick to pounce.

"The Iraq war has demonstrated the kind of firepower that even an incompetent enemy can bring to bear," said Victor O'Reilly, a novelist and defense consultant who has written several harsh critiques of the Stryker vehicles. "We need deployable, heavily armed ... fighting vehicles not the Strykers."

But Army officials and contractors who developed the Stryker say they are doing everything possible to protect the troops. "It's important that parents and family members of soldiers realize that there is a lot of testing that is not publicly available. A lot of armchair pundits just assume things that are not so, and are flat wrong," said Peter Keating, a spokesman for General Dynamics, a main contractor.

And in a recent visit to Iraq, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the commander of U.S. troops, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, is looking forward to the Stryker brigade for possible deployment in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

"His eyes definitely lit up," Cantwell said. "He said, 'We can't wait to get them here.' "

If the vehicles prove themselves, it will be a testament to the vision of former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who faced critics even inside the Department of Defense when he dreamed up the idea for a new wheeled Army in 1999.

The idea posed a big challenge to contract designers. They needed to find the right compromise between the weight of armor and guns, and the slimmed-down demands of air-cargo travel. They came up with a group of vehicles, including an infantry carrier, mobile gun system, mortar carrier and anti-tank system.

The inside of the Stryker vehicles feature a new age of digitized, computerized operations. A vehicle commander, for example, who receives orders to attack an urban position some 50 miles away, can then punch up detailed maps right down to side alleys of the target area.

Army and contractor officials say the initial goals are being met, including the concept of aerial deployment. The vehicles at least in some configurations can be loaded on C-130s and flown to a battle zone.

But debate about aerial deployment was sharpened in June by the release of a General Accounting Office report, which concluded that the Air Force lacked enough lift to meet the four-day benchmark for the brigade's deployment. Instead, the report found that it would take "five to 14 days, depending on destination," and only with a huge commitment of Air Force resources.

Kendell Pease, a General Dynamics spokesman, said the GAO report is not a criticism of the Stryker, but simply a reflection of the limitations of Air Force cargo fleets.

The Stryker's performance in war games also has sharpened the debate.

Last year, during a "Millennium Challenge in California," a $250 million joint military exercise, 13 of 14 Strykers were taken out by small-arms fire, grenades and guns mounted on enemy vehicles, during ambushes and other "enemy" encounters.

On one of the simulated missions, the Strykers failed to kill a single enemy vehicle, according to an initial performance review by the Army's Test Evaluation and Command Center. Pease said the Stryker has had many improvements since the California test.

For brigade commander Col. Michael Rounds, the vehicle's assets far outweigh any shortcomings.

"My evaluation is, 'Am I comfortable taking this brigade into combat?' " he said. "And I'm absolutely comfortable."

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company