A story by Sean Naylor in Defense News this week about the success of the Army’s sole Stryker brigade in Afghanistan contains important lessons about how future armored vehicles should be designed. Naylor reports that eight-wheel Stryker armored vehicles are faring better than heavily armored trucks because they are rugged and maneuverable enough to get off the roads, thereby avoiding the most likely places where improvised explosive devices (IEDs) may have been hidden. The country only has a few major roads, so it doesn’t take great genius on the part of Taliban insurgents to figure out where to plant bombs if they want to destroy U.S. vehicles. But the highly maneuverable Strykers aren’t confined to the roads, so they are less likely to be blown up.
The lumbering Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles developed for the Iraq war don’t fare as well, Naylor reports, because their weight and high center of gravity make going off-road a risky proposition: they might tip over, or get stuck. Military planners figured out long ago that the Afghan terrain would be a challenge for armored trucks originally conceived with the flat expanses and well-developed road system of Iraq in mind, so the Army is buying thousands of MRAP “all terrain vehicles” to give coalition forces more tactical flexibility. Stryker is demonstrating the wisdom of that decision, while once again proving its own adaptability to a wide arrange of missions and operational conditions.
The impressive performance of Stryker in Afghanistan should underscore the drawbacks of fielding future combat vehicles equipped with excessive armor. While there is a clear relationship between armoring and survivability, beyond a certain point armor becomes an impediment to the other operational features of the vehicle. So when Andrea Shalal-Esa of Reuters reported last week that the weight of the planned next-generation Ground Combat Vehicle is about 70 tons — some insiders say even more — it should have raised concerns about the vehicle’s deployability to remote theaters and mobility once there. Stryker seems to offer a better model for the present threat environment, where nothing is certain and warfighting requirements change frequently.
The virtue of Stryker resides not only in a robust basic design, but in its ability to accept modifications as operational needs change. Jason Sherman reported at InsideDefense.com this week that the Army is contemplating a series of changes to Stryker that would improve its resilience in irregular warfare. These include a double-V shaped underside of the hull to deflect explosive energy, an adjustable (up and down) suspension, wider tires with external kevlar cladding, more engine horsepower, and energy-absorbent seats. Most of these modifications can be installed quickly to save lives, in much the same manner that slat armor was installed previously to counter rocket-propelled grenades. But if the Army wants to benefit fully from the versatility of the Stryker design, it needs to make the changes as they become available, rather than conducting endless tests while soldiers are at risk.
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