The Blog

Kevlar Coffins?

Inability to grasp tactical and technical reality leads to sensationalistic and misleading reporting.

11:00 PM, Nov 18, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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I am no great fan of the Army's M1126 Stryker infantry combat vehicle (ICV), the eight-wheeled battle taxi hastily adopted by the Army in 2001 to provide an air-transportable vehicle offering more protection and carrying capacity than a HMMWV. It's too big (at 23 feet long and 9 feet wide, it's the size of a bus) and too heavy (about 20 tons in fighting trim) to fit comfortably on a C-130 Hercules transport plane or to be dropped by parachute. Its cross-country mobility leaves something to be desired. It is under gunned, normally armed with either a .50-caliber machine gun or a 40mm grenade launcher (the Mobile Gun System, a fire support version armed with an auto-loading 105mm cannon has run into a host of technical problems). And, at something more than $2 million per copy, it is grossly overpriced for the mission it is supposed to accomplish--carrying nine infantrymen across the battlefield in the face of small arms and artillery fire to a place where they can dismount and fight on foot.

But I had not heard any complaints about the Stryker's armor protection or survivability during the five years it has been deployed in Iraq. With ceramic appliqué armor fitted over a 6-8mm high hard steel shell, the Stryker can resist hits from 14.5mm armor piercing rounds and high velocity artillery fragments. Its armor can be penetrated by the shaped charge warheads of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), but the bulky, heavy slat armor normally fitted to the vehicle is generally quite effective at defeating that threat (in Iraq, one Stryker was hit by no fewer than nine RPGs in the course of one patrol, but was able to continue back to base under its own power, the crew suffering only minor injuries).

The Stryker has also been able to survive hits from a variety of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including one large bomb that turned the vehicle on its side. After being pulled upright by another Stryker, the vehicle was able to move under its own power. Again, the crew suffered only minor injuries. The vehicle has proven vulnerable to explosive formed fragment (EFP) warheads, a special kind of IED consisting of a concave steel disk backed with plastic explosives: when detonated, the steel disk is converted into a bolt moving at several thousand meters per second and capable of penetrating anywhere from 40-100 mm of rolled homogeneous steel armor (RHA). However, in most cases the EFPs have not been able to destroy a Stryker or incapacitate the majority of its passengers and crew.

In short, the Stryker seemed like a relatively well-protected vehicle that was well liked by the troops using it.

Which is why I was surprised to see an article Sara Carter in the Washington Times (5 November 2009) entitled "Armored Troop Carriers Called Unsafe for Duty."

According to Carter, the officers and men of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) presently deployed in Afghanistan consider the Stryker a perambulating death trap. She quotes one soldier as saying,

"Honestly, I'm going, but I don't want to go," said the soldier, who asked not to be named to avoid problems with his superiors. "I want to at least have a fighting chance. There's no enemy when you're sitting in a box. You can't fight what you can't see when you're sitting in the Kevlar coffin.

Huh? What has changed to convert the Stryker from the ride of choice for American infantry to a "Kevlar coffin"? Carter gives some figures: since 13 September the 5th SBCT has lost 21 of its 350 Strykers to IEDs, and suffered some 24 men killed and 70 wounded. That sounds bad, but is it? First off, Carter doesn't define lost. Armored vehicles are frequently damaged to the point that they have to be sent to a depot for extensive repair, but unless they are burned out or totally shattered, they are seldom permanently destroyed. The twenty-one Strykers lost probably includes several totally destroyed, but many more repairable. That total losses amount to about 94 men and indicate that most of these losses were not catastrophic (though undoubtedly traumatic to the men involved). Twenty-one Strykers can carry 231 men. If all the brigade's losses came from attacks on Strykers, then the casualty rate for each Stryker destroyed would be about 40%. The death rate would be just 10% for each Stryker destroyed. That's actually pretty good by historical norms.