The U.S. Army’s Stryker Conundrum

Soldiers, of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, tactically move a Stryker over the Mojave Desert during Decisive Action Rotation 15-10 at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, Calif., Sept. 24, 2015. The Stryker and other ground combat vehicles are undergoing a number of upgrades, according to officials. (Photo Credit: Sgt. William Howard)

As part of an initiative to modernize the U.S. Army in the late 1990s, then-Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki articulated a need for combat units that were more mobile and rapidly deployable than the existing heavy armor brigades. This was the genesis of the Army’s medium-weight Stryker combat vehicle and the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs).

Since the Stryker’s introduction in 2002, SBCTs have participated successfully in U.S. expeditionary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, validating for many the usefulness of Shinseki’s original medium-weight armor concept. However, changes in the strategic landscape and advances in technology and operational doctrine by potential adversaries are calling the medium armor concept back into question.

Medium armor faces the same conundrum that currently confronts the U.S. Army in general: should it optimize to conduct wide area security operations (which is the most likely type of future conflict) or combined arms maneuver (the most dangerous potential future conflict), or should it continue to hedge against strategic uncertainty by fielding a balanced, general purpose force which does a tolerable job of both, as it does now?

The Problem

In the current edition of Military Review, U.S. Army Captain Matthew D. Allgeyer presents an interesting critique of the Army’s existing medium-weight armor concept. He asserts that it is “is suffering from a lack of direction and focus…” Several improvements for the Stryker have been proposed based on perceptions of evolving Russian military capabilities, namely “a modern heavy-force threat supported by aviation assets.” The problem, according to Allgeyer, is that

The SBCT community wants all the positive aspects of a light force: lower cost, a small tooth-to-tail ratio, greater operational-level speed, etc. But, it also wants the ability to confront a heavy-armored force on its own terms without having to adopt the cost, support, and deployment time required by an armored force. Since these two ideas are mutuality exclusive, we have been forced to adopt a piecemeal response to shortcomings identified during training and training center rotations.

Even if the currently proposed improvements are adopted however, Allgeyer argues that updated Strykers would only provide the U.S. with a medium weight armor capability analogous to the 1960’s era Soviet motor-rifle regiment, a doctrinal step backward.

Allgeyer identifies the SBCT’s biggest weaknesses as a lack of firepower capable of successfully engaging enemy heavy armor and the absence of an organic air defense capability. Neither of these is a problem in wide area security missions such as peacekeeping or counterinsurgency, where deployability and mobility are priority considerations. However, both shortcomings are critical disadvantages in combined arms maneuver scenarios, particularly against Russian or Russian-equipped opposing forces.

Potential Solutions

These observations are not new. A 2001 TDI study of the historical effectiveness of lighter-weight armor pointed out its vulnerability to heavy armored forces, but also its utility in stability and contingency operations. The Russians long ago addressed these issues with their Bronetransporter (BTR)-equipped motor-rifle regiments by adding organic tank battalions to them, incorporating air defense platoons in each battalion, and upgunning the BTRs with 30mm cannons and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).

The U.S. Army has similar solutions available. It has already sought to add 30mm cannons and TOW-2 ATGMs to the Styker. The Mobile Protected Firepower program that will provide a company of light-weight armored vehicles with high-caliber cannons to each infantry brigade combat team could easily be expanded to add a company or battalion of such vehicles to the SBCT. No proposals exist for improving air defense capabilities, but this too could be addressed.

Allgeyer agrees with the need for these improvements, but he is dissatisfied with the Army “simply reinventing on its own the wheel Russia made a long time ago.”  His proposed “solution is a radical restructuring of thought around the Stryker concept.” He advocates ditching the term “Stryker” in favor of the more generic “medium armor” to encourage doctrinal thinking about the concept instead of the platform. Medium armor advocates should accept the need for a combined arms solution to engaging adversary heavy forces and incorporate more joint training into their mission-essential task lists. The Army should also do a better job of analyzing foreign medium armor platforms and doctrine to see what may be appropriate for U.S. adoption.

Allgeyer’s proposals are certainly worthy, but they may not add up to the radical restructuring he seeks. Even if adopted, they are not likely to change the fundamental characteristics of medium armor that make it more suitable to the wide area security mission than to combined arms maneuver. Optimizing it for one mission will invariably make it less useful for the other. Whether or not this is a wise choice is also the same question the Army must ponder with regard to its overall strategic mission.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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