The Army has deployed a new troop transport vehicle in Iraq with many defects, putting troops there at unexpected risk from rocket-propelled grenades and raising questions about the vehicle's development and $11 billion cost, according to a detailed critique in a classified Army study obtained by The Washington Post.
The vehicle is known as the Stryker, and 311 of the lightly armored, wheeled vehicles have been ferrying U.S. soldiers around northern Iraq since October 2003. The Army has been ebullient about the vehicle's success there, with Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, telling the House Armed Services Committee last month that "we're absolutely enthusiastic about what the Stryker has done."
Soldiers emerge from a Stryker during a battle with insurgents in Mosul, Iraq, in February. An Army study criticizes the vehicle's performance.
(Jim Macmillan -- AP)
But the Army's Dec. 21 report, drawn from confidential interviews with operators of the vehicle in Iraq in the last quarter of 2004, lists a catalogue of complaints about the vehicle, including design flaws, inoperable gear and maintenance problems that are "getting worse not better." Although many soldiers in the field say they like the vehicle, the Army document, titled "Initial Impressions Report -- Operations in Mosul, Iraq," makes clear that the vehicle's military performance has fallen short.
The internal criticism of the vehicle appears likely to fuel new controversy over the Pentagon's decision in 2003 to deploy the Stryker brigade in Iraq just a few months after the end of major combat operations, before the vehicle had been rigorously tested for use across a full spectrum of combat.
The report states, for example, that an armoring shield installed on Stryker vehicles to protect against unanticipated attacks by Iraqi insurgents using low-tech weapons works against half the grenades used to assault it. The shield, installed at a base in Kuwait, is so heavy that tire pressure must be checked three times daily. Nine tires a day are changed after failing, the report says; the Army told The Post the current figure is "11 tire and wheel assemblies daily."
"The additional weight significantly impacts the handling and performance during the rainy season," says the report, which was prepared for the Center for Army Lessons Learned in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "Mud appeared to cause strain on the engine, the drive shaft and the differentials," none of which was designed to carry the added armor.
Commanders' displays aboard the vehicles are poorly designed and do not work; none of the 100 display units in Iraq are being used because of "design and functionality shortfalls," the report states. The vehicle's computers are too slow and overheat in desert temperatures or freeze up at critical moments, such as "when large units are moving at high speeds simultaneously" and overwhelm its sensors.
The main weapon system, a $157,000 grenade launcher, fails to hit targets when the vehicle is moving, contrary to its design, the report states. Its laser designator, zoom, sensors, stabilizer and rotating speed all need redesign; it does not work at night; and its console display is in black and white although "a typical warning is to watch for a certain color automobile," the report says. Some crews removed part of the launchers because they can swivel dangerously toward the squad leader's position.
The vehicle's seat belts cannot be readily latched when troops are in their armored gear, a circumstance that contributed to the deaths of three soldiers in rollover accidents, according to the report. On the vehicle's outside, some crews have put sand-filled tin cans around a gunner's hatch that the report says is ill-protected.
Eric Miller, senior defense investigator at the independent Project on Government Oversight, which obtained a copy of the internal Army report several weeks ago, said the critique shows that "the Pentagon hasn't yet learned that using the battlefield as a testing ground costs lives, not just spiraling dollars."
Asked about the report, Army officials who direct the Stryker program said they are working to fix some flaws; they also said they were unaware of some of the defects identified in the critique. "We're very proud of the Stryker team," said Lt. Col. Frederick J. Gellert, chief of the Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team Integration Branch in Washington, but "it hasn't been something that's problem-divorced."
According to the latest Army figures, 17 soldiers in the Stryker combat brigade have died in Iraq in 157 bomb explosions, but no delineation is made for those who perished inside the vehicle and those who were standing outside it; an additional five soldiers have died in two rollovers. No current figure was provided for those who perished in grenade attacks, although one officer said he thought it was fewer than a handful.
Neither the lessons-learned report nor more recent Army data state how many soldiers have been wounded while inside the vehicle. The report states that in one case, a soldier was struck by shrapnel that penetrated both the vehicle's armor and his own body armor; in another case, an entire crew escaped with minor injuries after a vehicle sustained nine grenade hits.
The criticisms of the Stryker's first performance in combat seem likely to give new arguments to critics of the Army's decision in 1999 to move away from more heavily armored vehicles that move on metal tracks and embrace a generation of lighter, more comfortable vehicles operated at higher speed on rubber tires.
Senior Army officers in Iraq, like those at the Pentagon, have been surprised by the intensity of hostilities there since mid-2003, and lately some officers have said they depend on heavy armor to protect their soldiers in urban warfare, even though tanks in Iraq have also suffered unexpected damage.
But Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, the Army's director of force development, said that when he rode in the Stryker for the first time, he "marveled at how much nicer it was" than riding in a Bradley vehicle or an older troop transport, the M113, which he likened to being inside an aluminum trash can being beaten by a hammer. He said the Stryker was "amazingly smooth" and quiet by comparison.
In a report completed at the time of deployment, the Pentagon's operational test and evaluation office rated the Stryker vehicles sent to Iraq "effective and survivable only with limitations for use in small-scale contingencies." Congressional auditors at the General Accounting Office in December 2003 said the first brigade "did not consistently demonstrate its capabilities, indicating both strengths and weaknesses."
Independent groups and a loose-knit group of retired Army officers who dislike the Stryker vehicle have alleged that the Stryker's 2003 deployment was motivated partly by the desire of the Army and the manufacturer, General Dynamics, to build congressional support for buying additional brigades. But Speakes said that was nonsense and that the brigade was deployed in Iraq simply because the Army needed it.
Researchers Bob Lyford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.