FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan — In the coming weeks, the Army will begin sending150 “double-V hull” Stryker armored personnel carriers to Afghanistan in hopes the new design will better protect troops against deadly roadside bombs.
The Army eventually will get 450 of the modified eight-wheeled vehicles, the Army’s official website announced last week.
Following the deaths of dozens of soldiers who were riding in “flat-bottomed” Strykers, the vehicles’ manufacturer was tasked with coming up with a design that deflects explosions from the crew compartment, and includes enhanced armor, wider tires and blast-attenuating seats.
The double-V hull design, which went from conception to production in less than a year, will replace conventional, flat-bottomed Strykers that have seen extensive service in Iraq and made an inauspicious debut in Afghanistan in June 2009 with the deployment of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to Kandahar province.
Members of that brigade, which had 37 troops killed in action and 238 wounded during its yearlong mission, reportedly called the vehicles the “Kevlar coffin.” Things got so bad that part way through the deployment, the Stryker unit was diverted away from the main fighting in Kandahar to a “freedom of movement mission” guarding roads on the periphery of where the toughest combat was taking place.
Unfortunately, the strain of repeated combat tours necessitated the Strykers’ deployment to Afghanistan to “take their turn downrange,” said retired Lt. Col. David Johnson, executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. Stryker brigades’ soldiers — if not their vehicles — need to deploy to Afghanistan so that other units have enough dwell time at home.
But the Stryker vehicle itself might not be the best option in places like Afghanistan, he said. It was designed to be a rapidly deployable, medium-armor vehicle that would fight in a medium- to high-intensity conflict, carry troops to an assault position and dismount the troops.
“[It] isn’t perfectly suited for the environment in Afghanistan or a low-intensity conflict with IEDs,” he said. “The Stryker is a platform. If it doesn’t work, use another tool.”
Other units often change their equipment when they deploy, Johnson said. The Grafenwoehr-based 172nd Infantry Brigade, for example, will leave its tanks and tracked vehicles in Germany and rely on dismounted patrols, helicopters and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles for transport when it deploys to Afghanistan this summer.
The vehicle’s efficacy, or lack thereof, in Afghanistan is debatable, Johnson said.
Neither the Army, nor the vehicle’s manufacturer, General Dynamics, would comment on concerns that the flat-bottomed Stryker is vulnerable to large buried bombs.
General Dynamics representatives referred inquiries to Col. Robert W. Schumitz, Project Manager Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Schumitz, whose staff interacts daily with General Dynamics on upgrades to the Stryker’s armor protection, said data on soldiers killed in Strykers or multiple casualty incidents involving the vehicles is classified.
But news reports have detailed attacks on Strykers that resulted in mass casualties. On Oct. 27, 2009, for instance, seven soldiers and an interpreter were killed when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in the Arghandab River Valley.
‘Essentially a death trap’
The Germany-based 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment — which replaced the 5th Stryker troops in Afghanistan — has had 14 troops killed in action and five noncombat deaths, with more than 100 wounded, during its current deployment, even though the unit was conducting road-guarding missions similar to the 5th Strykers.
In fact, some 2nd SCR soldiers said they count themselves lucky to be alive.
In one incident in August, a 1st Squadron flat-bottomed Stryker was struck by a massive bomb hidden in a highway culvert in Kandahar province. The blast peeled away the armor protecting its engine like the skin of an orange, snapped off a wheel at the axel and mangled the metal cage that was designed to protect troops from rocket-propelled grenades.
Pfc. Dustyn Applegate, 19, of Amarillo, Texas, was one of two “air guards” standing in the Stryker’s rear hatches when the bomb detonated.
“It felt like I got hit by a moving vehicle,” Applegate said soon after the blast. “I got thrown into the side of the air guard hatch and then someone pulled me back into the vehicle, and I was banging around like the inside of a clothes dryer.”
Applegate said he doesn’t rate the Stryker as a good vehicle for the sort of counter-IED mission that his unit was engaged in.
“I personally believe they (Strykers) would be better in a city,” he said. “They were made for driving through cities and taking attacks from buildings. Not driving down the road getting blown to pieces. I don’t think they are as safe as they could be. Inside of it is essentially a death trap.”
If the Stryker had rolled another yard, the IED would have blown a hole in the troop compartment and everyone inside would have been hurt, Applegate said.
“That’s the bad thing about the Stryker,” he said. “It has a flat bottom, so when the blast happens, it just blows up instead of up and out like with an MRAP. There is no safe place on the Stryker.”
A 1st Squadron medic, Spc. John Lilienthal, 40, of Healdsburg, Calif., said he got to the stricken vehicle and found it next to a 6-foot-deep crater. Much of the blast was absorbed by the Stryker’s engine block, he said.
“We probably would have had a multiple-casualty incident if the blast had hit further back [on the vehicle],” he said.
Why use them at all?
Even some senior commanders appear to be aware of the limitations of the conventional Stryker.
During a visit to troops in Kandahar province last summer, 2nd SCR commander Col. James Blackburn jokingly reminded one of his squadron commanders, who had traveled in an MRAP during a particularly dangerous mission, that he was a member of the 2nd “Stryker” Cavalry Regiment.
So, why is this vehicle, which seems to be poorly constructed for the country’s No. 1 hazard being used instead of seemingly better alternatives such as the MRAP?
Because MRAPs, which can weigh 50,000 pounds, lack mobility, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Christopher Mueller, 31, of St. Louis, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist who deployed to Spin Boldak in support of 4th Squadron, 2nd SCR.
“In this area, there aren’t many places we can’t go, but in other parts of Afghanistan there are places where an MRAP physically won’t fit, or off-road situations where it doesn’t have the mobility to move around,” Mueller said. “I’ve seen roads collapse under them. In thick mud, they sink.”
The mobility of the Stryker is one of the advantages cited by its advocates, who include many of the senior officers from the 2nd SCR — which has been handing off its mission, in recent weeks, to another Stryker unit, the 1st Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
“We have all the vehicle types in Afghanistan available to us,” Lt. Col. Omar Jones, commander of 2nd Squadron, 2nd SCR, said last year. “If I wanted to ride in an M-ATV, I could, but I prefer to ride in a Stryker, hands down.”
Jones, who deployed to Iraq twice in Strykers, said the vehicles give their crews much better situational awareness than they’d get in an MRAP. The combination of the Stryker’s high-tech communication systems and the way the vehicle is manned, with three soldiers peering out of top hatches, makes the Stryker particularly effective in a counterinsurgency fight, he said.
“The ability to understand what is happening around the vehicle is unprecedented,” he said. “Soldiers [in the Stryker] are ready to engage when they get out — whether that’s a lethal fight or, more likely here, a community engagement.”
The Stryker’s eight wheels also give it the mobility to navigate off-road terrain and move quickly and quietly on paved roads — something Jones rated as a bonus for the 2nd SCR mission, which involved operations over a wide swath of southern Afghanistan. The fact that a Stryker can carry an 11-man squad into battle is another advantage compared to an MRAP, which typically carries eight soldiers, he said.
Until the new and improved Strykers arrive, the Army has been making changes to the vehicles already in Afghanistan. The Army has been adding armor and blast-attenuating seats to flat-bottomed Strykers in country, something Schumitz said enhances the soldiers’ survivability.
“We have had a continuous effort since Iraq and carried on into Afghanistan to improve where we can the ballistic survivability of the platform for soldiers both in the crew area and in the driver’s area,” he said.
The Army currently has seven Stryker brigade combat teams, and it is about to start fielding an eighth, Schumitz said.
The fact that 2nd SCR is being replaced by another Stryker unit, “… answers big Army’s belief that the Stryker brigade combat team is a proper structure to have in Afghanistan,” he said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert on Afghanistan, said adding the double-V hull to the Stryker would cut against its original purpose — to be rapidly deployable — but he emphasized that the most important thing right now is keeping troops alive.
“Who cares if this invalidates the original vision of the Stryker?” he asked. “You have to keep your people alive and accomplish your mission.”
Until the double-V hull Strykers are fielded units in Afghanistan should have a choice of whether to use Strykers or MRAPs, depending on the mission, he said.
“They have got to be willing to use MRAPs whenever the tactical situation would dictate,” he said, adding that he’s not convinced by soldiers who say they feel safer in a Stryker.
“Their instincts are more battle tested than mine, [but] we have been doing this for a long time and we have data,” he said. “When someone says, ‘I feel safer,’ that makes me nervous. There is a fine line when you are making decisions based on emotions and instincts and what you subliminally want to do.”
The Army should take a dispassionate look at its data on Strykers’ performance in Afghanistan, he said.
“If on a given route in Afghanistan we have seen twice as many casualties with Strykers as with MRAPs, it is time to start using MRAPs,” he said. “We know enough about safer ways of operating in Afghanistan that we shouldn’t be relying on emotional arguments and what people have to say based on the original vision for Stryker 10 years ago.
“We need to be a bit more rational and data driven at this point.”