ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND: The Army is rapidly upgunning its 8×8 Stryker vehicles to better deter the Russians in Eastern Europe, as we wrote yesterday. But soldiers are still figuring out how they’ll use the new vehicles. And the service as a whole is struggling to update the entire armored force, from the 20-ton Stryker to the 70-ton M1 Abrams, let alone develop all-new vehicles the way Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain would want.
This week, the focus here is on test-firing the new Strykers: the Dragoon variant with an unmanned turret holding a 30mm autocannon, and the CROWS-J weapons upgrade that adds Javelin anti-tank missiles to the rest of the Stryker force. The Army’s also looking to improve the Strykers’ defenses with Active Protection Systems to shoot down incoming missiles, but testing has just begun.
By contrast, the Army’s built eight prototypes of the 30mm Stryker Dragoon — two of them have already been destroyed to test their defenses — and the first of 83 production vehicles arrives this month. The last of 83 vehicles earmarked for the Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment (2CR) will be delivered in May.
“It is a marked increase in capability,” said Lt. Col. Troy Meissel. “(But) we don’t know how directly it’s going to impact our tactics, our doctrine, and that’s what this next phase of the operation…is. How are we going to incorporate it into the 2CR formation and employ it in the European theater?”
Meissel is second in command of the Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment, whose urgent 2015 request for more firepower kickstarted the effort to upgrade the Stryker in the first place. The vehicles’ mobility has put 2nd Cav on the front line of European deterrence, moving rapidly across NATO territory and beyond. Meissel just flew in from Tbilisi, Georgia, where 2nd Cav troops recently completed a 2,500-kilometer (1,500-mile) road march from their barracks in Germany. Only one Stryker out of more than 50 (and one LMTV truck) didn’t make it the whole way.
Wheeled vehicles like Strykers can travel long distances on roads at higher speeds with fewer breakdowns and less fuel than heavier tracked vehicles like M1 Abrams tanks or M2 Bradley troop carriers. The price is that they’re also much less well armed and armored.
A small number of Strykers in each brigade can fire TOW anti-tank missiles or – a particularly cumbersome variant – a 105mm tank cannon. But the vast majority are Infantry Carrier Vehicles, carrying a driver, gunner, and nine foot troops, and armed only with either a grenade launcher or a .50 caliber (12.7mm) machinegun. In most Stryker units, the longest-range weapon is the Javelin anti-tank missile, but until they get the new Javelin mounts on their vehicles, firing one requires an infantryman to get out of his armored vehicle and set up the launcher behind whatever cover he could find.
By contrast, with the new equipment, the Javelin-armed Stryker just has to come to a brief halt in order to fire, with no one having to dismount. The 30mm model can fire on the move. Infantry and scout platoons will haves a 50-50 ratio of Strykers with 30mm turrets (and 7.62mm coaxial machineguns) and Strykers with Javelin launchers (and .50 cal machineguns or grenade launchers).
Two crucial caveats. First, an upgunned Stryker isn’t a tank. Even the uparmored 25-ton models weigh less than the armor plating on an M1, a 30mm cannon can’t penetrate armor like a 120mm one, and a Javelin is only a midsize anti-tank missile. Second, Stryker vehicles exist to support the infantry, providing them transport and covering fire, so at some point the guys in back need to get out. “This is not designed to fight tanks,” Lt. Col. Miessel emphasized. “The center of gravity of our formation is still the infantry in the back, dismounted, maneuvering under the cover of fire.”
That said, when the infantry attacks, the new longer-ranged weapons let the Strykers provide more covering fire while staying further from the enemy, a major concern given their relatively light armor. And when not attacking – when scouting ahead or falling back in face of superior force, for instance – the new weapons let the Strykers open fire from further away, hopefully out of the enemy’s range, and then scamper (“disengage”), hopefully before the enemy closes and retaliates.
That lets the 2nd Cavalry exploit the great advantage of Strykers, their long-range mobility, without falling afoul of their great weakness, their relatively thin armor. If the Russians invade Poland or the Baltics, the upgunned 2nd Cav still won’t be killing many T-90 or Armata heavy tanks. What it can do is take a toll on their less well-armored supporting vehicles – scouts, troop transports, and so on – and discourage their infantry from advancing on foot. The new weapons will make for a more effective delaying action as the cavalry buys time for NATO’s heavy forces to deploy.
Or at least that’s what I read between the lines of what the Army’s saying. Finding out how the new Strykers will really be used is the big job ahead for the 2nd Cavalry and the Army institutions supporting it.
While the Army is fielding Strykers with improved firepower, it’s just beginning tests of better protection. During the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, the Army uparmored most of its vehicles, including the Stryker. The vehicle went from 20 tons to 25 tons as the Army added RPG-resistant “slat armor” to the sides and redesigned the underbody from a flat bottom to a double-v hull (DVH). As on many US vehicles, the extra armor saved lives but reduced performance and increased breakdowns. The Army’s now fielding an upgraded DVH with 100 more horsepower and a stronger suspension system.
The Army doesn’t want to just start piling on weight again. Indeed, the Stryker simply can’t carry enough armor to stop the latest Russian-made tandem warheads, which use one charge to blast a path for a second. Even the M1 Abrams would need a prohibitive increase in weight to stop these warheads, said Maj. David Bassett, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems.
So instead, the Army is evaluating Active Protection Systems (APS), essentially mini-missile defenses that use radar to detect incoming missiles and then fire explosives to shoot them down. The Army’s own long-term solution is called the Modular Active Protection System (MAPS), but it wants to field something off-the-shelf ASAP. Under consideration: either the Trophy or Iron Fist — both Israeli — or Iron Rain, or the US Iron Curtain.
“Characterization” – it’s not a full formal “test” – of APS on M1s is well underway, Bassett said, with work on Trophy ahead of Iron Curtain and Iron Fist.
“We’re very close to a decision on the Trophy system,” Bassett said. “We’re looking to make those decisions rapidly so that we can spend money in the next fiscal year….on a brigade worth of capability of Trophy on the Abrams.”
Unfortunately, because money for the other vehicles didn’t move as fast, Bassett said, “we’re just now starting testing on Stryker and we’re not yet in test on Bradley.” The Bradley, in particular, can only handle the weight and power requirements of APS with an improved turret, a feature not found on current models but only the A4 upgrade. The “characterization” tests are being done on an A3 Bradley modified with some A4 features, what one officer called a “FrankenBradley.”
Together, Stryker and Bradley are “60 to 90 days behind where I wanted them to be at this point,” said Bassett. That’s particularly problematic because these lighter vehicles were less well-armored than the M1 Abrams to begin with, so they arguably need Active Protection Systems more.
Adding new weapons and protections to existing vehicles is a modernization strategy the Army can afford — but at a laborious pace.
Consider the Army’s three brigades of Double-V Hull (DVH) Strykers, with a redesigned and uparmored underbody to defend against roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. (The 2nd Cavalry, in Europe, has the original flat-bottom model because NATO, as the defender, is more likely to be mining the roads than the Russians). The Army has designed an upgrade – the DVH A1 – with a new engine, suspension, and other improvements. But it will take nine years to convert all three Stryker DVH brigades.
“The DVH A1 is funded to a brigade every three years. That’s really slow; it’s not terribly cost-efficient,” Bassett said. “On tank and Bradley upgrades, we’re going to be doing a fraction of a BCT (Brigade Combat Team) annually, based on the available resources. And on AMPV, we’ve seen the production rate (planned for future years) begin to come down to make room in the portfolio for other priorities.”
That said, this incremental approach does deliver real improvements. By contrast, the Army has spent decades and billions on all-new vehicles that never saw service. The most notorious is the Future Combat System, which tried to deliver a whole family of vehicles including an armored howitzer and delivered nothing. And before FCS there was the Crusader howitzer, which was never bought.
Meanwhile the old M109 howitzer has soldiered on, a design first fielded in the 1960s but repeatedly upgraded until almost every component has been replaced. The current Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) program is delivering the M109A7, with new automotive systems fitted under the existing gun turret. The next step will be to upgrade the gun – at which point, said Barrett, “you really have a wholly new platform.”
Yes, the Army could concentrate its efforts on replacing a single vehicle with something new, rather than spread them over upgrades for everything. But that would ultimately deliver less combat power, said Bassett: “We know that…all of these incremental upgrades add more capability to our warfighters in those formations than just replacing the Bradley.”
The Protection Problem
“There’s still a desire for a wholly new capability,” Bassett acknowledged. For now, the Army is refining new technologies so they’ll be ready to start a new vehicle program, someday, when the value-added and maturity of the new tech outweighs the risk.
There are some big hurdles, especially the need for breakthroughs in lightweight armor materials. Since 9/11, the need to add on armor against ever-greater threats has increased the weight of almost every vehicle, from Strykers to Bradleys to the M1. At over 70 tons, the uparmored M1 is pushing the limits of roads, bridges, suspensions, and supply lines. Adding more armor hits diminishing returns, and the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, recently emphasized the need for new, lighter materials.
“General Milley was very candid about the fact that that (i.e. new armor) is what we’re going to need to transform these vehicles,” Bassett said. To date, there’ve been improvements in armor, but not a revolution. “If I were to go to build the Abrams tank today with modern steel, modern manufacturing techniques, I could make it lighter without giving up any capability… We could get it back down under 70 tons. But I don’t think it makes it a 40-ton vehicle.”
For now, the only way to get a lot more defense without a lot more weight is to use Active Protection Systems like Trophy, which can’t stop tank shells but do kill incoming missiles. Trophy adds about a half-ton to the 73-ton M1, Bassett said. The main issue with APS isn’t the weight per se, but installing it in the right place so it doesn’t upset the balance of the turret, he said.
Being relatively low-weight, APS can also go on lighter armored vehicles like Stryker. The Stryker’s boxy body also gives it plenty of room for other upgrades, from the 30 mm turret to anti-aircraft missiles to drone-zapping lasers.
Better versions of existing vehicles may lack the combat power and sex appeal of all new designs. But it’s what the Army can afford — and as the newly upgunned Strykers show, it can make a real difference.