The U.S. Army defines the Stryker's mission as: "[To] fulfill an immediate requirement in the Army's current transformation process to equip a strategically deployable (C-17/C-5) and operationally deployable (C-130) brigade capable of rapid movement anywhere on the globe in a combat ready configuration. The armored wheeled vehicle is designed to enable the Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) to maneuver more easily in close and urban terrain while providing protection in open terrain."
Modeled after the Light Armored Vehicle-3 (LAV), the Stryker comes in two main variants: Infantry Carrier Vehicle (ICV) and Mobile Gun System (MGS). All vehicles are equipped with a central tire inflation system. The ICV has a Kongsberg Remote Weapon Station with four M6 smoke grenade launchers and a universal soft mount cradle for either a MK240 7.62mm belt-fed machine gun, .50 caliber Browning M2 heavy machine gun, or a MK19 40mm Grenade Launcher.
A digital communications system - the FBCB2 (Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below) allows vehicle commanders to communicate with each other and with the Battalion using text messaging and a video map system where commanders can mark enemy positions on the map for the other commanders to see. This "tactical internet" utilizes a Raytheon AN/TSQ-158 Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS).
The commander can also access seven M45 periscopes and a combination video camera and thermal imaging display screen. The driver has access to a Raytheon AN/VAS-5 Driver's Vision Enhancer (DVE) and three M17 periscopes. In Iraq the Strykers are being fitted with add-on slat-armor for protection against RPG attack.
The slats are designed to detonate an incoming warhead before it contacts the vehicle's half-inch thick steel hull. But there is a limit to how much weight (armor) can be added to a wheeled vehicle before it begins to sink into soft terrain such as sand or mud. At 38,000LBS the Stryker is 11,000LBS heavier than the M113A3. This is due in part to the basic design of the armored vehicle, which requires wheels, axles, suspension, and a transmission.
The hull is fabricated from steel instead of aircraft aluminum - as used in the M113 - and this also adds to the weight. Space must be provided for the front wheels to turn in order to steer, and for all the wheels to travel up and down on the independent suspension. This prevents the use of armored skirts to protect the wheels from incoming ordnance, which means that the areas of the hull behind the wheels are vulnerable.
Oddly enough, while the South Africans fielded various armored vehicles in the '70s and '80s such as the Casspir and Wolf, both of which had a v-shaped armored hull to deflect the blast from driving over a land mine, the floor of the Stryker's hull is flat. Critics charge that the Stryker's additional weight also prevents it from meeting the Army's requirement of being transportable by C-130 where it can be immediately driven off the aircraft in a battle-ready condition, including its full complement of crew and troops.
Although faster than the M113 APC, the Stryker has been criticized by some as being too lightly armored, unable to cope with tough terrain, and too expensive. Contrast that opinion with the vehicle's performance in Summer of 2002 at The National Training Center, Ft. Irwin, California, during the Millennium Challenge. Four Strykers with their infantry detachments deployed to Ft. Irwin by C-130. Each vehicle was unloaded and prepared for action in less than twenty minutes.
In this exercise, and others like it at the National Training Center, various army units are pitted against other army units known as Opposing Force (OPFOR) that have been specially trained and equipped to simulate the battle tactics of some of our potential enemies. This is what the OPFOR force had to say about the Strykers: "The Stryker went places at greater speeds, quieter, with more agility than any vehicle the OPFOR has ever encountered. We had to adjust our tactics."
Speed and Stealth are two of the Stryker's strengths. It is best suited to fast travel on open highways and unrestricted terrain. In restricted terrain and the urban setting of buildings, narrow streets and alleys it loses its advantage. It's overall length and turning radius can often require many forwards and backwards movements in order to negotiate a ninety-degree turn in a narrow street.
Even the M1 Abrams Main battle tank is somewhat vulnerable to attack in such an environment. Unlike the M113, the Stryker's remote weapons station and camera system does allow the gunner to fire from within the vehicle rather than having to expose himself to incoming rounds. But the remote weapon station is handicapped by its narrow field of view and slow slew rate (the camera takes up to 60 seconds to rotate through 360 degrees) to scope the area in all directions. Multiple RPG shooters in a concerted attack from different directions could get off several rounds before the camera can pick up the first attacker. In its APC configuration, the Stryker is really a lightly armored bus or taxi to take troops to the front line. But on a non-linear battlefield like Iraq there is no front line and every building or alley may be hiding a tango with an RPG. Is the Stryker better than an up armored Humvee? Probably. It doesn't have open windows through which grenades or Molotov Cocktails can be thrown or dropped. It may be equipped with slat armor for some level of protection against RPGs.
It has twice the number of wheels that a Humvee has, and it is less likely to be tipped over by a crowd. In order to provide some safety in numbers, Humvees typically patrol in groups of four or more, a wise precaution for any lightly armored vehicle in an Iraqi city.
Is the M113 APC the answer? Not entirely. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) can, if it is big enough, and placed appropriately (particularly directly underneath) blow off a wheel or a track, leaving the crew immobilized in their vehicle. However, in at least one instance in Iraq, a Stryker has continued to maneuver on the remaining seven wheels. We are talking here about increasing the odds of surviving, not eliminating the risk altogether. So where should the Army spend $3.3 million? Buy one Stryker, convert eight M113A2 Gavins to M113A3, or up armor twenty-two Humvees?
The Stryker does have an obvious reconnaissance or support role on hard roads and trails, and where the terrain is fairly open and not too extreme. In fact, the Marine Corps limits its LAVs to a reconnaissance role. Incidentally, due to unforeseen transmission problems, Strykers will eventually undergo a planned $111 million refurbishment.
With its sophisticated communications systems and high speed, the Stryker can transmit battlefield intel rapidly and haul ass out of hotspots. But its armor has been criticized as being too thin, and any additions will just add to the problem of trying to deploy it by C-130, which was the original requirement stipulated by General Shinseki.
So is the Stryker better than the M113 in Iraq? Or has it been deployed to a theater of operations that may become increasingly unforgiving, in a peacekeeping role to which it may be unsuited?
John Higgs is a graduate of Gunsite, DTI and Yavapai firarms schools and is an NRA firearms instructor.