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Strykers going strong at age 10

It was more than 10 years ago that Gen. Eric Shinseki announced the Army's controversial plan to create brigades built around a medium-weight infantry carrier.

Shinseki, then the Army’s chief of staff, delivered a speech in October 1999 in which he said the Cold War-era force needed a versatile alternative that could move quickly into battlefields worldwide.

This sparked a debate: Should the new vehicles be on wheels or tracks? How heavy is too heavy? How light is too light?

The Pentagon tapped the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to become its test brigade. It received its first shipment of Stryker vehicles in June 2002 and took them to war 18 months later.

Today at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, what began as an experiment has transformed into seven brigades Army-wide, four of which got their start at the local installation.

It led to a decade-long troop buildup at Lewis-McChord, sparked a building boom and pumped millions into the South Sound economy. About 32,000 soldiers now serve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, up from about 17,000 when the Stryker transformation began.

The Stryker program initially attracted many critics; many have been silenced after seeing the vehicles’ success on the proving grounds of Iraq. The brigades have been sent to the scene of some of the most intense fighting of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Special Operations Forces, including Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, also have used the vehicle in combat.

Its supporters love the flexibility, speed, offensive posture and range.

“The Stryker just gives stuff no other system can,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, now in Baghdad province. “It’s got 360-degree security. It’s got lethality. It’s got mobility. It’s got range. As far as the platform goes, I wouldn’t want to be in anything else.”

Huggins deployed with 3rd Brigade in 2006-07. That tour saw his unit serve in Mosul, Baghdad and Diyala; whenever one region of the country would flare up, the Strykers were sent in.

In Iraq these days, however, some have questioned why the military doesn’t use more non-Stryker vehicles, given the slower pace of combat.

The 4th Brigade deployed to Baghdad with about 320 Strykers, 190 Humvees and 70 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. The latter provides more protection against the blast of a roadside bomb, the most lethal weapon used in Iraq today, but Huggins said soldiers must stay ready to fight, even though violence has ebbed to its lowest levels since the months after the 2003 invasion.

“When I drop that ramp, nine pissed-off dudes come flying out the back,” the 44-year-old Honolulu native said. “That’s really who brings the fight. You can’t do that with a Humvee, and you sure as hell can’t do that with an MRAP.”

STILL SOME SKEPTICS

The Stryker program has always had its critics.

Victor O’Reilly, an Irish author who wrote a report panning the vehicle for a congressman before the first Stryker deployment in 2003, still isn’t convinced.

He said this month that the brigades’ success is a credit to the soldiers and the onboard technology, not the vehicle itself.

O’Reilly listed nine objections to the Stryker, including its vulnerability to roadside bombs, its poor off-road performance, its high price, and military officials selling the system as being suitable for “full-spectrum warfare,” which he said is untrue.

“I was, and remain, a critic of the vehicle not because I thought it was hopeless – it started life as an entirely adequate armored car – but because I felt there were better and more cost-effective alternatives,” O’Reilly wrote in an e-mail, “and because the evidence suggested the choice of the Stryker owed more to politics than performance.”

The Army originally committed to spend $4 billion on the program, which quickly became a political issue. Whether the new vehicle would be on wheels or treads also was a point of contention. So was whether its size prohibited it from being airlifted quickly into battle.

DOUBTS ALSO IN AFGHANISTAN

The same questions that preceded the Stryker’s first Iraq deployments swirled around Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade last year as it prepared to become the first Stryker unit sent into Afghanistan.

Critics charged that the country’s terrain – which ranges from steep mountainsides to flat, sandy deserts – would prove too much for the Stryker. Supporters pointed to positive results during field testing of the vehicle in harsh landscapes. They cited the Canadian military’s successful use of the Light Armored Vehicle III in southern Afghanistan since 2003. (The Stryker design is a modification of the LAV III; both are built by General Dynamics.)

Lt. Col. Burton Shields, the commander of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, acknowledged that the vehicle doesn’t perform as well off roads. His unit began its deployment in mountainous Zabul province, later moved to desert-like Helmand and participated in the Marjah operation, where members battled amid canals and ditches.

“In some of the more restrictive terrain, there are some limitations – but that’s nothing we didn’t know,” Shields said. But, he added, “neither (the MRAP nor the new MRAP all-terrain vehicle) has as good of an off-road performance as the Stryker.”

Among the drawbacks, Shields said: An MRAP isn’t a fighting vehicle and weighs considerably more than a Stryker; an M-ATV can haul only five soldiers.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, is the chairman of a House armed forces subcommittee with oversight of many of the Pentagon’s weapons programs. Despite what critics say, he said the Stryker is the right infantry carrier for Afghanistan today and into the future.

“I’m still hearing that it is the right vehicle,” he said. “It does have the flexibility and maneuverability they’re looking for. That seems to be the judgment of the Army up to this point.”

Maj. Matthew Holly, the operations officer of 3rd Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, acknowledged that the MRAP can handle large blasts better than a Stryker but said MRAPs come under attack more frequently.

Soldiers also panned the MRAP for its size, which makes it too big to fit into some areas, and its high center of gravity, which increases the odds of a rollover.

“The MRAP is a knee-jerk reaction to protect people in transit from Point A to Point B,” Huggins said. “It is not a fighting platform.”

Lt. Col. Joseph Davidson has been assigned to 3rd Brigade since May 2002 and deployed three times to Iraq from Lewis-McChord.

Davidson commands the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, one of the few units still doing regular offensive and security operations – though far fewer than during the worst days of the war. His soldiers work alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces conducting daily checkpoint operations and about 90 patrols monthly in northern Diyala.

His cavalry squadron uses MRAPs in its security platoon, but that’s out of necessity: There aren’t enough Strykers for each platoon.

“What you don’t want in this counterinsurgency atmosphere is to be put in a defensive position,” Davidson, a Seattle resident, said. “The unfortunate nature of the MRAP is that it puts you in a defensive posture.

“So, at least in my opinion, the Stryker is still the way to go.”

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