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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.

Still, it seems clear that the Stryker is suffering heavier losses in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq. Carter provides one reason:

Taliban insurgents have become increasingly successful in planting IEDs, some as large as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. Since July, these powerful bombs have ripped apart 21 of the 350 Strykers in Afghanistan and destroyed one Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

If this is the case, then the problem is not the Stryker. There is not a vehicle in the world that can protect its crew from a direct hit (or even a very near miss) from a bomb of that size. One of Carter's technical consultants, COL Doug Macgregor, a retired tank officer, says "the U.S. Army would do better to follow the example of Canada, which has bought German Leopard II tanks for use by ground forces in Afghanistan." That's misleading on two levels. First, while a 70-ton main battle tank (MBT) may be able to absorb a hit from a normal-sized IED, and even a moderately-sized EFP, a 1500-2000 lb. blockbuster will surely kill the crew from blast overpressure and shock, even if it does not totally pulverize the tank. Second, while a 70-ton tank gives a certain amount of security, it is a fact that the Afghan terrain is scoured by many deep ravines, canyons and gorges that can be crossed only by bridges, most of which cannot sustain the weight of an MBT. In short, a tank is nice, but only if you intend to stay on the main roadways.

Armored officers despise the Stryker, and would have preferred a tracked armored vehicle like the M2 Bradley or even the venerable M113. The "tracked mafia" at the U.S. Army Armored School at Fort Knox had to have a wheeled solution rammed down their throats by Congress and the Army Chief of Staff. I am not sure that the Armored School was wrong, but Macgregor's disdain for the Stryker overrides his objectivity:

What you need in Afghanistan is tracked armor, off-the-road capability and a stable platform for large-caliber guns.

If that is indeed the case, then certainly the Soviet Army should have done much better against the Afghan Mujahideen back in the 1980s. But their tracked vehicles, including tanks, suffered much higher losses than our forces in their Strykers, and the Mujahideen did not make extensive use of large IEDs.

The simple fact is, in the contest between IEDs and armored vehicles, the bomb-maker will always win over the armor designer. He can always make a bigger, badder bomb, while the vehicle designer is constrained by the conflicting requirements of protection and mobility. There comes a point where you cannot put more armor on the vehicle. There also comes a point, as with the Taliban's 1500-2000 lb. IEDs, when no amount of armor can protect you.

As I have said before, the solution to the IED problem is not technical, but rather tactical and operational. Carter actually touches on this at the end of her story, quoting Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell:

While the type of vehicle our forces are riding in, be it a Stryker or an MRAP, can help them survive an IED attack, the best defense is a good offense and [Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates and his team here and in Afghanistan are working hard to make sure our troops have the wherewithal to track, map and ultimately defeat the bomb-implanting networks," Mr. Morrell said.

That is, if you want to defeat the IED threat, you go after the bomb makers, not the bombs. To do that, the U.S. needs to follow the same strategy it used so successfully in Iraq: get out of the vehicles, patrol on foot; win the confidence of the people, and turn them against the insurgents; use the people as intelligence sources to inform on the insurgents, reveal the names of the bomb makers and the location of the bomb factorys, then roll up the bomb-making networks.

To do this, however, our forces will need more men. In fact, they will need to implement the full counter-insurgency plan outlined by General Stanley McChrystal--a plan that languishes in limbo while the Obama Administration anguishes and tries to triangulate.

In the meanwhile, more U.S. troops will die, but not because of any deficiencies in their vehicles. The Stryker is pretty good at the job it does, and no other vehicle could do better in the face of the threats our troops are facing. Misleading reports like Carter's tend to exaggerate the normal grousing of soldiers, and in the process create the impression of a problem that does not really exist. A little more experience, a little less enthusiasm for the catchy headline, would have resulted in a more informative and balanced report.

Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.