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Army's new wheeled armored vehicle criticized

Heaviness of more mobile troop carrier is a factor compared to existing tracked model

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

The U.S. Army's choice for an Interim Armored Vehicle, the LAV III, was unveiled a week ago in a rollout ceremony in London, Ontario.

The Army plans to spend $4 billion to acquire 2,131 of the vehicles, called the Stryker, to provide a lightweight armored vehicle until it begins procuring a new generation of high-tech tanks and armored personnel carriers around 2008.

Supporters say the Stryker is the first step toward a lighter, more mobile Army that can respond more quickly to international crises. Critics say it is a waste of money that could endanger soldiers' lives.

The Stryker is an eight-wheeled armored car that will be manufactured principally by General Motors of Canada. It is a heavier, more modern version of the armored car that has been used for more than 20 years by Canadian Forces and the U.S. Marines.

The Army plans to have the first Stryker brigade operational by January, but not all configurations of the vehicle will be available until 2005.

The Stryker will come in two variants: an armored personnel carrier with nine different configurations, and a mobile gun system equipped with a 105 mm cannon capable of destroying bunkers and some light tanks.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki wants the Stryker to provide greater tactical mobility, firepower and a measure of armor protection for the Army's light divisions. It is part of his plan to "lighten" the Army so more power can be moved more rapidly to areas in crisis. Critics point out that the Stryker would add weight to the Army's light divisions.

Six of the Army's 10 divisions are "heavy" -- with armor or mechanized infantry -- equipped with the Abrams tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Heavy divisions are all but invincible on a conventional battlefield. But because the Abrams weighs nearly 70 tons, and the Bradley 25 tons, it is very difficult to move more than a small part of a heavy division rapidly.

Of the six brigades Shinseki wants to equip with Strykers, all but one are "light" formations.

One of the brigades slated to receive the Stryker is the 56th Brigade of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, headquartered in Philadelphia.

"This puts us at the forefront of Army transformation," said the brigade commander, Col. Philip Carlin, who owns an insurance company in Altoona.

Few doubt the need for the Army to have light armored vehicles. But, critics say, the Army already has a better one. That is the M-113 armored personnel carrier, nicknamed the Gavin, the mainstay of the mechanized infantry before the Bradley. The Army has about 17,000 Gavins, which run on tracks, but most of them are in storage.

The Senate Armed Services Committee wrote into the defense authorization bill for 2001 a requirement that a side-by-side comparison test be made of the Stryker and the Gavin before an interim light armored vehicle is chosen. Congress gave the defense secretary permission to waive the test if he didn't think it was necessary.

Army Secretary Thomas White will ask Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to waive the test, a spokeswoman said. Col. David Ogg, a project manager, told Defense News a comparative evaluation would provide "little or no new information."

An analyst for a think tank funded chiefly by defense industries agrees.

"The Army conducted a broad series of tests on options for the interim force between March and November of 2000," said Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute. "To do it again would be a waste of time, money and effort.

"Lightweight wheeled vehicles have been ideal for most of the situations we've been confronting in the war on terror," Goure said.

But a serving Army officer, a veteran of the biggest tank battle of the Persian Gulf War, said the real reason the Army brass doesn't want to have a side-by-side test is that they are afraid the Stryker would come up short.

Another doubter is retired Army Col. John Barnes, who, as a staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote the language requiring the side-by-side tests.

The Army is proposing to spend a great deal of money to acquire a light armored vehicle that is no better and perhaps worse than one it already has, Barnes said.

The Gavin would be easier to support logistically, he said.

"People don't realize that in the heavy divisions even today, there are more M-113s than there are Abrams or Bradleys," he said. "There are parts in the system to fix the M-113, and mechanics who know how to maintain it. The Stryker will require a whole new logistics stream."

The most vocal critic of the Stryker has been Mike Sparks, a former Marine and paratrooper. Sparks wrote with retired Gen. David Grange a book on how to use light armor to support airborne operations.

The Stryker and Gavin are essentially equal in armor protection, and in the types of weapons they can carry, Sparks said. But the Gavin is vastly superior in strategic and tactical mobility, he said.

A requirement for the Interim Armored Vehicle is that it be able to be carried by the Air Force's tactical airlifters, the C-17 (of which the Air Force has 64) and the C-130, (of which the Air Force has 510).

Both vehicles fit comfortably on a C-17, although it can carry five Gavins at a time and no more than three Strykers.

The smaller, lighter Gavin has been carried and airdropped by C-130s for years. But at 37,000 pounds in its lightest variant, the Stryker is at the outer limit of the C-130's cargo capacity, and its greater height makes it a tight fit in the C-130's cargo compartment.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Forces said a Stryker can be squeezed onto a C-130 if the air is let out of the tires. In an internal document, the Army acknowledged that eight of the 10 proposed variants of the Stryker are currently too heavy to be lifted by a C-130.

A public affairs officer for the Army's Tank Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) in Warren, Mich., said all the Stryker variants would meet the C-130 lift weight limit, but wouldn't say how.

"We've got a plan," said Peter Keating of General Dynamics Land Systems, the principal American contractor for the Stryker. "Some of it involves hardware changes [as, for instance, using aluminum rather than steel for the Stryker's wheels]. Some of it involves what the Army wants to have fly [on the C-130] with the vehicle."

The Lexington Institute's Goure said that because wheeled vehicles are easier and cheaper to maintain, and are gentler on roads, they are better suited than tracked vehicles for peacekeeping missions.

But the value of the Stryker will be diminished if the weight of its principal variants can't be reduced enough to transport it on a C-130, he said.

Once on the battlefield, the Gavin will have a much easier time getting around, Sparks said.

"Since the beginning of mechanized warfare, engineers have recognized that tracked vehicles have substantial advantages over wheeled vehicles of comparable weight in cross-country mobility," Sparks said. "This is why virtually every tank in every army from World War I on has been on tracks, not wheels."

It would cost between $100,000 and $500,000 to provide each Gavin with a digitized communications system like those the Abrams and Bradley have. New tracks would lighten the vehicle and allow the Gavin to travel at up to 50 mph on roads, Sparks said.

The Stryker will cost more than $2 million, he said.

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