One of the biggest developments in the ground forces since the end of the Cold War has been the introduction of the Stryker armored fighting vehicle and the formation of Stryker Brigade Combat Teams equipped with it. The plan was to improve the Army’s ability to deploy outside the NATO area with a force powerful enough to take on any likely threat.
The experience of Operation Desert Shield had been a sobering one; the campaign was a success, but it took a lot longer to build up the ground forces for the assault on Saddam than anyone had expected. The problem was the weight of the equipment being deployed; M1 Abrams MBTs are heavy pieces of gear and need to be transported by rail and sea. Getting them to Saudi Arabia with all their support gear and logistics burden took months. It worked against the static Iraqi forces, but if the enemy had maneuvered aggressively it could all have gone horribly wrong.
Future Combat System
The planned solution was the Future Combat System, an interim family of “medium” armor that could take on second line enemies, equipped with systems like the T55 tank and BMP infantry fighting vehicle, but be light and compact enough for strategic airmobility. FCS would have included IFV, anti-armor and artillery variants that could be transported by C17 or even C130. Advanced armor and active defense systems would protect against anti-tank missiles and RPGs, while networked sensors and weapons would allow the vehicles to kill enemy tanks from outside their gun range.
Initial planning started in 1999, but there was no way the FCS vehicles could be available before 2010, so the Army looked for an interim solution. The choice was the LAV III, a Canadian variant of the successful Swiss MOWAG Piranha wheeled armored vehicle. Another Piranha model, the LAV 25, was already in service with the USMC, so the Army had confidence in the design. In 2000, a US-Canadian consortium was awarded a contract to produce over 2,100 vehicles that would equip six SBCTs.
The Army quickly got a chance to try out the new brigades in Iraq, then Afghanistan, and the results were mixed. The modern, networked vehicles give great situational awareness and command capabilities, and although the weapons are lighter than the planned FCS armament – mostly .50 HMGs or 40mm grenade machine guns – they were plenty for dealing with insurgents. The problem was that the Stryker was also less well protected than FCS. That didn’t matter as long as it was an interim vehicle, but in 2009 the FCS was cancelled after massive cost overruns, leaving the Stryker as the Army’s medium AFV family.
Stryker Brigade Upgrade
The Army has now launched a huge program to upgrade the Strykers with extra protection. The basic vehicles were vulnerable to large IEDs, so the underhull has been reinforced with a double V hull to direct blast away from the floor plate. Extra slat armor has been added around the sides to protect against RPGs and improved seating protects the occupants against minestrikes.
“The USAF can move a complete Stryker brigade anywhere in the world within 96 hours, and a division in five days.”
With multiple versions, including a 105mm main gun with powerful anti-armor capability, a 120mm mortar vehicle and a TOW missile carrier, a Stryker unit has the firepower to go head to head with a second line conventional force. Protection is still weaker than even an obsolete tank and not much better than a BMP, but to compensate, the C4I systems are state of the art and mobility is excellent over all distances. The eight-wheeled chassis doesn’t have the cross country capability of tracks but it can still get across most terrain, and it’s faster and more reliable on roads. All vehicles can be carried in a C17 or, with the slat armor removed, in a C130. The USAF can move a complete Stryker brigade anywhere in the world within 96 hours, and a division in five days. That’s a powerful, reasonably well armored force.
If NATO goes head to head with Russia in Ukraine, a Stryker team probably isn’t the force to send – it would do badly against T-90s and BMP-3s – but against most other adversaries it should be more than capable. Hopefully one day the FCS will be resurrected under a different name, but until then, the Stryker is the world’s leading medium AFV.