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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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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.