April 1, 2005
Armor-Bound Army Muscle?
By Jack Kelly
Four items in the news recently suggest the Army should reconsider plans to put its future on wheels.
*Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the First Cavalry Division, gave a talk at the Fort Hood officers club March 14. He said one big lesson his troops learned during their year in Iraq is that heavy armor--M1 tanks and Bardley Fighting Vehicles--are enormously effective in urban combat.
*USA Today reported March 18 that the number of soldiers killed or seriously injured in accidents involving up-armored humvees has more than doubled in the last four months. All but one of 14 soldiers killed during the period died in rollovers. The Army suspects soldiers lack the skill to handle the heavier Humvees and lose control speeding through ambush areas.
*A study by the Center for Army Lessons Learned indicated the slat armor on the new Stryker armored car stops rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) only about half the time, and the weight of the armor degrades the Stryker's performance and makes it mroe difficult to operate safely.
*The New York Times reported March 28 the estimated cost of the first phase of the Future Combat Systems--a family of wheeled vehicles the Army hopes will replace tanks and Bradleys--has soared to $145 billion. "We're dealing with a train wreck," said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Most soldiers who have ridden in them and fought from them like the Strykers. "It rides very nice," said Lt. Daniel Leard, a platoon commander in the first Stryker brigade to see combat in Iraq. "We never had any major maintenance issues."
But others demur. "In e-mails from troops stationed in Iraq, the criticisms are numerous," said Eric Miller, a defense investigator for the Project on Government Oversight.
"The Stryker has too many blind sponts looking out from the inside; the 5,000-pound "birdcage" armor makes it top-heavy and prone to rollovers; it breaks down too often and chews up tires at an uncommon rate," Mr. Miller said.
Stryker weapons--the .50 caliber machine gun or the Mark-19 40 mm grenade launcher--"will not penetrate most walls in Iraq, which are made of concrete and cinder block," said retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a mechanized warfare expert.
"My big beef with the stryker is the .50-cal," an otherwise complimentary soldier told me. "If you run out of ammo, you have to physically get out of the vehicle, get on the roof and grab another ammo can. That's insane."
With the slat "birdcage" armor attached, the Stryker is too bulky to fight its way through the narrow, winding streets of older Middle Eastern cities, and too heavy to maneuver effectively off roads, said defense consultant Victor O'Reilly.
Lt. Leard acknowledged his platoon couldn't take its Strykers into central Mosul. "We patrolled (there) on foot," he said.
The cost of the Stryker is approaching $4 million each, according to the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. That's an awful lot to pay for an oversized armored car with thin armor and light weapons, say Col. Macgregor and Mr. O'Reilly. They favor an upgraded version of the venerable M-113 armored personnel carrier.
The MTVL (Military Tactical Vehicle Light) is an M-113 with a new hybrid-electric engine; band (rubber) tracks; the same communications suite the Stryker has; upgraded armor; and (on some models) heavier weapons. United Defense, the original manufacturer of the M-113, estimates it can convert the older vehicles into MTVLs for about $400,000 each.
The knock on heavy armor is that large numbers of tanks and Bradleys can't be moved anywhere fast, and they cost a lot to operate and maintain. The Soviet Union's collapse and the advent of precision-guided weapons mean armored divisions no longer make much sense. But we could put an armored cavalry squadron in every division. This would give lighter forces punch when needed.
Competition in real-world conditions is the best way to determine which machines and organizational systems are superior. Before dumping a ton of money into the FCS, the Army should equip several battalions in Iraq with MTVLs, and compare their performance with that of the Stryker.
Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former marine and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.
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