Army's lightweight Stryker brigade to get tested in Iraq

Fort Lewis, Wash.-Dust clings to everything, and the air smells of smoke. It's as if the Pacific Northwest, after one of the driest and most brushfire-prone summers on record, is trying to add a little extra realism to the last big war game before this Army unit deploys to Iraq. For three years, the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division has reorganized, retrained, and re-equipped-essentially remaking itself from a conventional, tank-heavy mechanized formation into the first unit of a new and controversial "Stryker force." This month, the 3rd Brigade ships out for Iraq. After years of bitter debate, the Stryker brigade's deployment will be the first real-world test of concepts on which the U.S. Army is betting its future.

At the base's plywood mock-up of a village, local "Iraqis"-role-played by young soldiers in civilian clothes-watch troops move into position during a drill. As the soldiers near, the Iraqis shout, in character, "Go away! We don't want you here!" Suddenly, and with surprisingly little noise, two of the brigade's namesake vehicles roll up the dusty road: eight-wheeled, 19-ton, lightly armored Strykers. (The vehicle is named for two Medal of Honor winners who died in battle-Stuart S. Stryker in World War II and Robert F. Stryker in Vietnam.) On their giant rubber tires, the Strykers race to the edge of the buildings-and then stop. Infantrymen jump out and storm the village.

But the vehicles themselves hold back; they're too lightly armored to risk encountering an ambush that could come from between the buildings. Instead, the Strykers provide covering fire from a distance, but not with the missiles and 25 mm cannon of the older, heavier M2 Bradley fighting vehicles that most infantrymen rode into the Iraq war. The Stryker uses grenade launchers and .50-caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns, light weapons not even stabilized to fire accurately on the move.

Though it has less hardware than the Bradley, the Stryker force also has some subtle advantages. The Stryker vehicles have thermal sights that can spot the body heat of a hidden sniper. And, unlike in traditional units, every foot soldier in a Stryker squad has his own radio, allowing the vehicles and the infantry to coordinate to take out an enemy before he can fire.

These units demonstrate in miniature the new American formula for war: Precise information, shared through electronic communications, enables pre-emptive action. The Stryker force's superior awareness of the situation is meant to make up for its lighter arms and armor.

"It's how we fight that makes us survivable-not necessarily the skin of the vehicle," said Col. Michael Rounds, the brigade's commander. In the 1980s, Rounds served in an even lighter unit, the experimental High-Technology Light Division, mounted in unarmored Humvees. "You had the opportunity back then to be just as mobile," he recalled. But that era's sensors and communications couldn't always detect an enemy, and "sometimes you ran into a buzz saw that you weren't expecting." The High-Tech Light Division was never deemed ready to deploy. But after 20 years of revolutionary improvements in information technology, Rounds insisted, Stryker can make the theory work in a real battle.

Hints of this new way of war have already emerged. Special Forces troops, unorthodox but highly mobile on horseback, used lasers to guide smart bombs in Afghanistan. And in Iraq, the smaller numbers of ground forces-half the number deployed in the first Gulf War-used high-tech sensors and communications to direct the lightning maneuvers and thunderous air strikes that toppled Saddam Hussein in weeks.

But the troops still drove into Baghdad under the protection of heavy armor. Stryker takes the information-replaces-armor theory one step further. Instead of 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks and 30-ton M2 Bradley infantry carriers, the Strykers weigh just 19 tons and carry far less weaponry and armor. A Stryker brigade relies more on early warning than on might. It has its own reconnaissance battalion with three times as many scout troops as are in a traditional brigade. It also has its own fleet of four reconnaissance drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs), plus an array of new high-tech sensors, and a wireless computer network to share the collected information with every squad in the brigade within minutes.

The Army does not suggest that 19-ton vehicles can replace 70-ton tanks in all-out warfare, at least not yet. But it does plan to convert five brigades of light infantry-units of foot soldiers that currently have no armored vehicles of any kind-into additional Stryker forces to supplement the heavy armor, especially in "low-intensity" conflicts such as in Iraq.

Stryker has its skeptics. "Look, the technology is not necessarily a bad thing," said Williamson "Wick" Murray of the Institute for Defense Analyses, "but it's totally irrelevant to the fight we're fighting now." No high-tech sensor can distinguish a friendly civilian or sullen neutral from a guerrilla, Murray says, not, at least, until the bad guy whips out his rocket-propelled grenade and slams a shot right through the Stryker vehicle's light armor at the 11 U.S. soldiers inside.

The Stryker force is taking the Army's high-tech methods to an extreme in the very arena that has always given the Army the most trouble: guerrilla war.

So far, the Stryker program has survived vicious criticism within the Army community and skeptical review by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Congress added $35 million this September to speed up work on the 5th and 6th brigades, which once were on the verge of being canceled. Still, the Iraq deployment will not test the Stryker brigade's ultimate reason for being-its ability to rush to a crisis by air transport, which is why its vehicles have to be so light. But the stakes in this Iraq mission will still be, literally, life and death, for the soldiers and for the Stryker program.

All eyes will be on the brigade in Iraq. "It's going to be impossible to get an objective view ... because there are so many political agendas," said retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a noted author and a Stryker supporter. "You're inevitably going to take some casualties, and we're going to see some very distasteful spin on the Stryker's performance." The best way to prepare to sort through those competing claims is to understand the Stryker before the shooting starts.

The Machine

The strangest sight around Fort Lewis is a 19-ton Stryker wearing steel hoop skirts. This is "slat armor," a kind of grille bolted onto all sides of the vehicle, leaving only the roof and wheels exposed. It is meant to catch incoming rocket-propelled grenades and detonate them prematurely, dissipating their explosive force a few inches away from the Stryker's skin. Slat armor makes the Strykers look even more, well, striking-but it is a marked contrast to the slab-like solidity of the older M2 Bradleys and M1 Abrams tanks.

Even a civilian eye can tell, at a glance, that Stryker is different: It has wheels, not tracks. While almost every other military on Earth, including the Marine Corps, uses some wheeled armored vehicles, if only for peacekeepers and scouts, the Army has always put tracks on all its fighting machines, and reserved wheels for mere trucks. Experts agree that wheels are faster on roads and on flat, hard ground, but that tracks fare far better over rocky, broken terrain, which tears tires up, and on soft, wet ground where wheels bog down. The debate is whether a wheeled vehicle can perform even adequately cross country.

Real field experience with Strykers, and with the light armored vehicle series from which Stryker evolved, is mixed. Australian and Canadian sources report that their wheeled LAVs sometimes get stuck in mud or in snow that light armored vehicles with tracks, the M113s, can chug right through. Conversely, the Saudi Arabian National Guard has used wheeled LAVs in desert patrols for years. In the invasion of Iraq, the Marine Corps's LAVs moved quickly through the open desert but pretty much had to stick to the roads in the boggy farmland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In the Stryker's debut last year, a company of 14 vehicles struggled during the "Millennium Challenge 2002" war games. The Strykers repeatedly shredded tires on the rocky desert ground of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. But the Army insists that by the time the whole brigade went to Fort Irwin this spring, the unit's drivers had mastered the new machine. "When I just started, I was very intimidated," said one, Spc. Chris Bishop, "but now ... it's like driving a big car." Tire damage has gone way down-and the Stryker can drive at more than 20 mph with all eight tires flat, anyway. While the wheels could not go everywhere the tracks could, the Stryker surprised the simulated enemy by showing up where the bigger, tracked vehicles couldn't go: "They were able to drive between the mines we normally put out, and skirt around the ends of obstacles," said Maj. Ed Stein, who led an "opposing force" against the Strykers.

One obstinate problem with the Stryker's mobility remains, the Army acknowledges: "The one area where it's not performing as promised is in fuel consumption," said Lt. Col. Dennis Thompson, commander of the brigade's support battalion. While the vehicle gets the advertised 5 to 6 miles per gallon on the highway, it gets only 2 to 3 mpg in stop-and-go maneuvers over rough terrain. As a result, Thompson's fuel trucks must resupply each Stryker unit every 48 hours instead of the planned 72-still a lot better than the 12-to-18-hour refueling cycle in a tank unit. Official Army estimates of the Stryker's cost to operate are less than $15 per mile driven, but even the highest outside estimate of about $52 per mile is less than the $69 per mile figure for the heavier, tracked M2 Bradley.

One factor that drives up costs and drives down mileage is, ironically, the weight of Stryker's much-derided armor. The basic LAV-series hull protects against only 7.62 mm rifle bullets, like those from the ubiquitous AK-47. Stryker adds a Kevlar liner inside the crew compartment and composite metal-ceramic tiles bolted onto the outside of the hull, which are meant to stop 14.5 mm slugs from a heavy machine gun. Bolt the two tons of slat armor on top of that, and Stryker should even have a 50-50 chance against an RPG.

Assuming that Stryker's armor works, that is. In tests with live ammunition at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, "some guy actually fired an ordinary rifle round straight through" one of the vehicles, said Victor O'Reilly, a Stryker critic with extensive inside sources. Worse yet, as O'Reilly was first to report, composite tiles from one subcontractor were substandard and had to be replaced.

The Army insists it has fixed all of the problems. By the end of September, contractors had tracked down every faulty tile on every vehicle and had welded on steel patches. In fact, every time the testing reveals a weak point, crews weld extra armor onto that spot on every Stryker. Scrambling over a Stryker with a mechanic reveals a patchwork of quick fixes: extra metal welded on the seam around the doors, over the hydraulics, behind the wheels. Mechanics have also incorporated soldiers' suggestions and relocated the driver's thermal sight, adjusted the back ramp to go lower ("A soldier said, 'I am tired of hitting my shin on the ramp,' " recalled Lt. Col. Buck James), capped an exposed bolt (said James, "I was constantly banging my head"), and made myriad other minor fixes.

The process seems haphazard. But it is an improvement over the military's past practice of "perfecting" new weapons in controlled conditions before issuing them to troops, at which point unexpected bugs, swarms of them, emerged in the field. Back in the 1980s, critics charged that the M2 Bradley was too lightly armored. Forced to do tests with live ammunition, the Army reluctantly agreed and ordered an up-armored version-but only after building more than 3,000 of the originals, some of which were never fixed. The Stryker's fixes have come only about 600 vehicles and four years into the program.

Still, no amount of patching will make a 19-ton Stryker as tough as a 70-ton tank. Smart tactics and technology will have to make up the difference. "What we will not do is stumble blindly down roads," said Maj. Barry Huggins, the brigade's executive officer. "We will put those sensors in play ... figuring out what's on the route."

That approach, of course, means that the technology has to perform.

The Matrix

Strykers and Humvees kick up great clouds of dust as they roll past the brigade's field headquarters. Inside the command tent, though, it is weirdly peaceful. Soldiers, along with civilian contractors in blue jeans and flak jackets, sit at plastic folding tables, working on desktop and laptop computers. Yet the brigade's ordinary-looking computer hardware embodies the cutting edge of the Army's 10-year campaign to militarize the Information Age.

Every single Stryker vehicle-and almost every supply truck in the brigade-carries a built-in electronic map. Its screen displays not only that vehicle's own location, verified by Global Positioning System satellites, but also the locations of every other vehicle in the brigade. Click on the blue icon that denotes a friendly unit, and the system tells you who it is. Users can e-mail orders and requisitions-and reports of enemy sightings, which cause an ominous red icon to pop up on everyone else's screen. Said one scout, Sgt. 1st Class Corey Harris, "What we can see, the whole brigade can see ... within two or three minutes."

In traditional units, which have only radio, said brigade commander Rounds, "I'd be ... spending 75 percent of my time saying, 'This is me, what's going on?' " and the other 25 percent showing up in person at some particular subunit, "grabbing the people and putting them where I wanted them." In this exercise, he said, "I just watched it unfold on my screen.... I can influence the fight by shifting resources, but not necessarily micromanaging the decisions of my subordinates."

The network, however, is imperfect. "It's a constant challenge just to fine-tune," said Maj. Paul Fischer, the brigade's chief signals officer, during an interview that he twice had to interrupt to fix glitches. "We're in a hole," laments a soldier from one unit unable to link to the network. Scowled Fischer, "You may be in a hole, but we should be able to hit you." The offending system in that case, the Near-Term Data Radio, will be replaced with a satellite relay before the unit goes to Iraq. Nevertheless, Rounds insists that the network's limitations have never constricted his maneuvers.

But if the system works too well, that also presents a challenge: information overload. Like the computer-generated fantasy world in the film The Matrix, a seemingly perfect virtual reality can gloss over key details, blinding users to the real reality outside. Instead of blitzing the enemy, said military theorist William S. Lind, "you end up blitzing yourself: You so overload yourself with information that you're paralyzed."

In early war games, soldiers and commanders of the Army's first "digitized" unit, the 4th Infantry Division (now in Iraq) lost time struggling with the unfamiliar high technology. Recalled Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine who is heavily involved in military experimentation, the games' simulated enemies, "with less-sophisticated, older equipment, routinely would beat these digitized units."

Two young Stryker officers who were involved in those earlier experiments both asserted, independently, that the system is much improved. "The one we have now is light-years better," said one, speaking out of earshot of his superiors. And when the brigade went for its war-game exercises at the National Training Center, its networks allowed a dramatically new style of operations.

Ground troops don't advance nonstop: They have to rest, resupply, and above all, pause to check for potential ambushes ahead. So, better reconnaissance and better communications are as crucial as a unit's top speed. The Stryker brigade is strong on all three counts. At the National Training Center, an Army light infantry unit averages 5 miles a night and digs in by day; a heavy armored unit can make 20 miles. One Stryker company, by contrast, raced 60 miles around the enemy flank. And while traditional units gradually expand their perimeter, the Stryker brigade swiftly spread detachments across the 25-mile-by-30-mile training area. Without the wireless network, coordinating such far-flung forces would have been impossible.

And supplying them would have likewise been impossible. When Thompson, who was then a captain, sent out supply columns during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he said, "I stayed up all night until those guys came back, because once they're out of radio contact, you just sweat it out." With the network, which automatically relays messages from vehicle to vehicle to vehicle, Thompson can track every supply truck-and e-mail its driver to stop, change course, or run away. If Pvt. Jessica Lynch had had such a system in her truck, her 507th Maintenance Company might never have wandered into an ambush.

Or maybe it would have anyway, Stryker detractors say. Guerrillas such as the Iraqi fedayeen are notoriously hard to spot with high-tech means. "It's very tough to have the raw information to put into the computer in the first place," said Philip Coyle, of the Center for Defense Information, and formerly the Pentagon's top weapons-tester. "It's very difficult, with overhead reconnaissance [from a drone], to tell that two or three people are guerrillas and are suddenly going to pull out rocket-propelled grenades."

Rounds agreed: "It's always going to take people out on the ground to interface with the populace, be present, ask the right questions." But often in history, he added, the insights from soldiers on the ground "got lost" as they were passed up the chain of command. An electronic network can capture that intelligence and speed it along to everyone who might need it. High tech is not the magic bullet, but it can help-if the soldiers on the ground are trained to see what's happening around them in the first place.

The Soldiers

At the mock village, the exercise is over for now. This afternoon, the same soldiers will run the drill again, this time firing live ammunition at life-size, 3-D figures of men and women. The trick is to shoot the mannequins that have guns in their hands but not the otherwise identical mannequins carrying handbags and cameras. That kind of split-second discrimination is just a tiny part of what the troops will have to master for Iraq.

"You've got to understand the rhythm of a city," what's normal for a neighborhood and what's not, says Lt. Col. Buck James, whose battalion is training here today. "This right here doesn't do it," he added, indicating the half-dozen plywood buildings. Earlier, at another, larger training area, James had sent a platoon (about 44 soldiers) into a mock "town" populated by 150 of his other soldiers in civilian clothes, each playing a role: "I had a postmaster, I had a baker ... I had farmers, with goats and sheep" specially rented for the drill. "By placing these guys outside of their comfort zone, they were able to start to learn some of the pieces."

Just serving in the Stryker brigade is outside most soldiers' comfort zone. There is no other unit like it in the Army. Veterans of heavy units have to get used to lighter vehicles with lighter weapons, and a force that includes many more foot soldiers. A heavy brigade of "mechanized infantry" riding Bradleys has 790 foot soldiers; a Stryker brigade has 1,300. Conversely, light infantry troops have to get used to having transport vehicles at all-and to maintaining them.

The new brigade blends the light and heavy styles, but the balance that has emerged is much closer to "light-plus" than "heavy-minus." The first Stryker brigade was originally built from a Bradley unit, but the Army assignment process has refilled its ranks with light infantry soldiers, and the other five brigades scheduled to become Stryker units are all light infantry already. While heavy units fight from inside their well-armed and -armored vehicles, Stryker troops are trained to ride up to a battle, dismount, and find the fight on foot. At the National Training Center, the simulated enemy repeatedly "destroyed" the lightly armored Strykers, only to discover that the soldiers were long gone. "We have vehicles, but in a lot of ways, they're just a ride," said Matthew Blome, a captain in the reconnaissance squadron. "Like the dragoons of the 18th century, we're mounted riflemen who fight dismounted."

The emphasis on infantry should prove helpful in Iraq, where the armored units that seized Baghdad have had trouble mustering the manpower to patrol it. "You have to intermingle with the population, you have to do searches," said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "You can't do a very good job of that, sitting inside an M1 tank."

Even many Stryker critics say that lightweight wheeled vehicles would be perfect for such policing, since they are quieter, less destructive to roads, and generally less menacing than the larger, louder tracked vehicles. "What you've really got," said one U.S. military planner, "is a paramilitary police structure that is a little more robust in some ways than the Carabinieri," the Italian Defense Ministry police who served valuably as peacekeepers in the Balkans.

But riding on wheels instead of tracks does not make you police, insisted Carabinieri Col. Vincenzo Coppola, a veteran of Bosnia and Kosovo who now serves as the chief police adviser to the Council of the European Union. Stryker soldiers still lack the "nonlethal" gear-tear gas, shields, nightsticks-that true "constabulary" forces use to repress riots without bloodshed. More important, Stryker soldiers lack extensive training and experience in routine police work among a general population, which is how the carabinieri and the similar French gendarmes spend most of their time. "It's not just a soldier who can use tear gas," said Coppola. At one street protest in Kosovo, for example, Coppola deployed a line of carabinieri in riot gear backed up by regular soldiers, similarly equipped. When a few people in the crowd started throwing rocks, the carabinieri just hunkered down behind their shields, but the soldiers opened up with tear gas-needlessly triggering an all-out riot.

What distinguishes military from constabulary is not materiel but mind-set: The first seeks total victory through overwhelming force, the other seeks stability through minimum force, writes Robert Perito in his forthcoming book, Where Is the Lone Ranger When We Need Him?, which argues that the U.S. military should create police-like units. The British and American approach has always been to retrain regular soldiers for peacekeeping, and it has met with some success. It is worth noting that the 3rd Infantry Division, which seized and now occupies Baghdad, did not get the full pre-peacekeeping training syllabus in the rush to war. The Stryker brigade, by contrast, has thrown itself into prepping for its new and more ambiguous peacekeeping role.

So at Fort Lewis, a few hours after the mock urban assault, another Stryker platoon is practicing checkpoint procedures on a dirt road. The learning curve is steep. Reporters arrive just as a soldier is being rebuked for "shooting" a simulated civilian who tried to run past the checkpoint. Later, two soldiers are "wounded" by gunshots from a car that had already been searched-inadequately-for weapons and let through the blockade.

From the other direction come two more "local civilians," played by T-shirted soldiers from another unit who have been briefed on actual situations from Iraq. The men turn in an AK-47, then insist they'd seen a U.S. leaflet promising them $500 for turning in a weapon. The soldiers demur. A crowd gathers, chanting "America lies!" The fast-talking "Iraqis" variously demand the weapon back, a receipt for the weapon, food and water, or a U.S. weapon in exchange. They grab for one soldier's M-16; he shoves them back with his free hand-and gets a five-minute lecture on how it is disrespectful, in Arab culture, to gesture with the left hand. "I want a receipt, food, and an apology!" shouts the "Iraqi." Eventually he gets all three-handwritten, shrink-wrapped, and grudging, respectively. As soon as the soldiers pass out food, the "Iraqis" start fighting over it. The troops wade in to break up the melee and tend the injured.

Throughout this drama, the platoon's four Stryker vehicles have been idling in the background. In training, as in Iraq, high technology and advanced concepts can go only so far. The success of the Stryker force-and of the entire U.S. effort in Iraq-is ultimately up to young soldiers struggling in the smoke and dust.