FORT IRWIN, Calif. – Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 19-ton Stryker vehicles made their mark early in the Iraq War as speedy “tactical taxis” hauling soldiers to hot spots a couple years after they started coming off the assembly line.
Now the Army wants to see how a machine developed just before the war years fares against a well-armed military. It’s a test Lewis-McChord Strykers last faced in 2002 before the Army knew it was in for 12 more years of fighting shadowy insurgent networks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last month’s exercise at the National Training Center pitting the Army’s original Stryker brigade against a fictional armored opponent was a significant milestone as the Defense Department decides how it wants to use its fleet of roughly 2,600 Strykers in the years ahead.
“We can hold our own,” Col. Dave Bair reflected when he got home to Lewis-McChord last week. He led about 4,500 soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in last month’s war games.
Bair, who spent most of his career with the light-fighting paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina, was not so confident going into the three-week exercise.
On the eve of its main event, he said, “I don’t think we know yet” when a reporter asked how the Strykers would stack up against the tanks and helicopters.
At the time, he and his command team were unsure how their brigade would overcome an enemy strike expected to consist of tanks and armored infantry carriers that could overwhelm less-armored Strykers in open terrain. They had to defend a 40-kilometer stretch of territory.
“I was nervous to the point of nausea,” said Maj. Don Braman, the brigade’s operations officer. “The whole problem seemed insurmountable.”
They won the battle by moving to high ground where they could hide teams of soldiers and Strykers. The soldiers would pop up with shoulder-fired javelin missiles and take out opposition vehicles as they moved through canyons.
Bair’s soldiers “destroyed” two-thirds of the 90 armored vehicles the fictional enemy used in its attack while losing less than one-third of the brigade’s vehicles.
Their lesson: “In the right terrain and with the right assets, the Stryker brigade can be successful in defense” against a conventional army, Braman said.
In the second phase of the exercise, the 3rd Brigade moved into offense and lost its entire cavalry squadron after attacking enemy positions that were fortified more than expected.
But the brigade ultimately won that battle, too.
From the very beginning, the Stryker was billed as a troop carrier, not a heavy-armor machine like an Abrams tank or a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Former Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki launched the Stryker program in the late 1990s when he called for the development of a medium-weight, wheeled infantry vehicle. The Stryker was intended to bring more firepower than the light infantry units first called to a conflict, but not so much firepower that it would take weeks to deploy them.
Some critics and observers questioned how it would hold up if ever placed in a conventional war.
Compared to the Abrams and Bradley, “the Stryker would, of course, look like a death trap,” said Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and widely published military analyst, in a 2003 interview with The News Tribune.
“Of course, any soldier would rather go into all-out combat in a Bradley,” Peters said. “But Stryker is for the in-between conflicts, where we’ve been relying on Humvees and trucks.”
Lewis-McChord base Commander Col. Charles Hodges participated in the last National Training Center rotation in which Stryker vehicles faced off against an armored enemy. That was in 2002, and it was the first time a Stryker brigade went to a full-scale war games exercise at one of the Army’s combined training centers.
Hodges remembered soldiers feeling frustrated because the Army hit them with tanks and helicopters right off the bat. Strykers were not designed for that kind of enemy.
The Strykers won some battles and lost some, he said.
“It was a learning experience,” said Hodges, who was the operations officer for a Stryker battalion in the 3rd Brigade at the time. In 2009, he led a Stryker battalion in Iraq as its commander.
Every Stryker brigade has about 4,500 soldiers and more than 300 Strykers. Some of those vehicles have weapons that can destroy tanks. None of them have air defenses.
At the National Training Center, the brigade also had three teams of Army Rangers, jet fighters, helicopters, a battalion from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force and additional artillery assets.
Last month, Stryker soldiers of all ranks got the sense that they were part of an experiment.
Some said they would have preferred to go up against an armored foe with the heavier machines, such as a Bradley.
“I feel the real purpose of this rotation is to see the capabilities of the Stryker in a conventional fight,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Sisson, who’s spent most of his Army career in heavy infantry units.
Last fall, the Germany-based 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment participated in a force-on-force exercise at a European training site that’s similar to the National Training Center, but smaller.
The next Stryker brigade heading south for the war games is expected to be Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
“It’s going to take a couple iterations for the Army to get where it wants to be” with its post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan plans for its Stryker brigades, Bair said.
Gen. Dan Allyn, chief of Army Forces Command, visited the 3rd Brigade during the exercises and said its soldiers did well adjusting to the armored threat.
“What you see is we adapt, and again leaders always find a way to win,” he said.