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Soldiers Defend Faulted Strykers

Costly Personnel Carriers Justified as Effective in Combat

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A21

MOSUL, Iraq, April 2 -- An internal U.S. Army report detailing flaws in a new $11 billion armored personnel carrier known as the Stryker has come under criticism from soldiers who use the vehicle in combat.

The Dec. 21 report cited problems with the Stryker's protective slat armor, remote weapons system and computers. The flaws, it said, placed troops "at unexpected risk" to rocket-propelled grenade attacks and raised questions about the Stryker's development for urban warfare.

A Stryker armored personnel carrier, outfitted with a metal cage to protect against rocket-propelled grenade attacks, on patrol in the Iraqi city of Mosul. (Jim Macmillan -- AP)

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But in more than a dozen interviews, commanders, soldiers and mechanics who use the Stryker fleet daily in one of Iraq's most dangerous areas unanimously praised the vehicle. The defects outlined in the report were either wrong or relatively minor and did little to hamper the Stryker's effectiveness, they said.

"I would tell you that at least 100 soldiers' lives have been saved because of the Stryker," said Col. Robert B. Brown, commander of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which uses about 225 Strykers for combat operations throughout northern Iraq. "That's being conservative," he said.

The Stryker has been controversial since its inception in 1999. The high-tech vehicle symbolizes the Defense Department's efforts to make the U.S. military more flexible and mobile. There are 10 Stryker variants, including a medical vehicle with four beds to treat casualties on the move and another that supports a TOW missile system.

The Army report found that the Stryker's protective slat armor -- essentially a metal cage that is welded to the vehicle -- is effective against just half of all rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs. The armor, developed specifically for use in Iraq, is designed to "catch" or deflect the grenades so they detonate before penetrating the vehicle.

Soldiers and commanders said the 50 percent figure was highly misleading because it characterized shrapnel sprayed by RPGs detonating on the slats as a failure. But soldiers said that in such instances, most of the Stryker's occupants remain safe. Gunners exposed from three hatches are still vulnerable, but not because of any shortcoming in the vehicle, they contended.

"That's the operational risk you take," said Capt. Rob Born, 30, a Stryker company commander from Burke.

The current Stryker unit in Iraq has sustained more than 250 RPG attacks in six months, including more than 70 direct hits, according to brigade figures. None has penetrated a vehicle.

Of the five soldiers killed while riding in Strykers, all were exposed from gunner's hatches and were struck by either bullets or shrapnel from bombs, not RPGs.

By comparison, the previous Stryker unit here -- the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division -- sustained 23 RPG attacks during its year-long tour, according to that brigade's statistics. The Army report, compiled by the Center for Army Lessons Learned in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., was based on interviews with soldiers from the 3rd Brigade.

Despite the criticisms, the report recommended that the Army continue to install slat armor on all Strykers.

"I wouldn't want to go around in any other vehicle," said Spec. Eric Forsyth, 20, of Houston.

Maj. Rick Stieber, of Portland, Ore., said he was in a Stryker last Nov. 11 when insurgents launched a citywide offensive on Mosul. An RPG exploded on the slat armor of his vehicle. "I didn't even know it," he said. "The track commander said, 'Hey, we just got hit by an RPG.' "

Soldiers familiar with the vehicle listed a number of flaws that they said should be addressed but said none affected the Stryker's overall performance. Duane Debruler, chief mechanic for the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, said that in recent weeks, as the mileage of some Strykers hit 30,000, the hubs on some of the vehicles' eight wheels would freeze, causing an axle to break. But the vehicle could still run, he said.

Another defect outlined in the report is the sluggishness of the vehicle's computer system. The system displays the vehicle's progress using an icon that moves across a detailed satellite image of surrounding terrain. Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, commander of the Stryker brigade's 3rd Battalion, agreed that the computers are sometimes slow.

"Does my gunner get to hear me say, 'Hurry the hell up?' Yes," said Gibler. "But it doesn't inhibit my ability to fight the fight at all."

Brown and others also said the Stryker's remote weapons system could use a laser range finder to better lock onto targets. In addition, the report noted that the slat armor, which adds 2.5 tons to the vehicle, requires additional air pressure for the tires. The report said nine tires a day need to be changed as a result, but Debruller and others said tire damage is caused as much by roadside bombs as it is by the added weight.

The soldiers said they would gladly accept the maintenance work caused by the added weight as a cost of the safety of the slat armor.

Asked about the report's finding that the slat armor's added weight caused handling and performance problems during the rainy season, when parts of Mosul can be reduced to a swamp, Debruller replied: "No kidding."

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