Lethality Upgrade: Why a New Stryker Variant Is Needed on the Modern Battlefield
In June 2015, the US Army issued a needs statement to Congress requesting an upgrade in lethality for the fleet of Strykers fielded by the Second Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany. By late 2016, the prototype Dragoon version of the Stryker, with a 30-millimeter cannon, stood ready for fielding to the regiment. The more lethal Stryker’s rollout comes against a backdrop of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which precipitated greatly increased NATO activity along the alliance’s eastern flank. The Second Cavalry Regiment, as one of only two US brigade combat teams permanently stationed in Europe, took the lead on many of the ensuing exercises between the United States and its eastern European allies. Current plans entail equipping two vehicles of each four-vehicle platoon with the more powerful weapon system. The proposed upgrade re-ignites a longstanding debate about the Stryker brigade combat team’s (SBCT) most effective employment. Critics suggest that providing the vehicle with increased firepower without increased protection warps the role of the vehicle in combat, levies undue costs, and could lead to tactical disaster for the formation in combat. These criticisms rest primarily on a refusal to change training techniques, faulty assumptions about the operational environment, and resistance to re-evaluating the SBCT’s capability gaps. Only by upgrading the Stryker’s lethality can the SBCT maintain the flexibility necessary for the modern battlefield.
According to Army doctrine, the SBCT primarily uses its vehicles to ferry its infantry squads to an engagement and then provide direct fire support. The formation’s key limitations are its vulnerability to enemy armor in open terrain and an inability to defeat an armored force in a meeting engagement. Among tactical-level leaders, arguments erupt over the Stryker’s baseline survivability and whether increased lethality would draw formations into engagements they couldn’t survive. Essentially, the Stryker’s armor can only withstand 14.5-millimeter rounds and its organic machine guns are only viable against unarmored targets. With such limitations, Stryker units must avoid direct contact with similarly armed vehicles and rely on dismounted Javelins or the small number of ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) or MGS (mobile gun system) Stryker variants in the formation to reduce those threats. The addition of 30-millimeter cannon throughout the formation could flip the central planning consideration of the SBCT on its head. Rather than seeing the Stryker as a battle taxi for its infantry, SBCT leaders would look to use the vehicle more aggressively and thus expose its lack of armor to more threats.
These arguments ignore three key points. First, almost all threat vehicles likely to face the Stryker currently outgun the vehicle. The Russian-made BTR series and similar Chinese Type 90/92 wheeled vehicles can withstand the Stryker’s weapons systems, for example, while most employ a 20-millimeter or larger auto-cannon capable of defeating the Stryker. SBCTs must primarily rely on their dismounted forces for the bulk of the fighting, but the vehicle is currently at a disadvantage compared to similar vehicles across the board. Second, an increase in lethality for the SBCT would necessarily lead to an update to the formation’s doctrine and training techniques, but not a drastic one. Dismounted forces would remain the focus of the formation’s combat power. Direct contact between platforms continues to be a less desirable tactic and the training to accompany the fielding of Strykers equipped with 30-millimeter cannons would emphasize that point. Denying the SBCT formation increased lethality due to an unwillingness to trust our tactical leaders to employ the platform correctly, betrays the trust we place in those leaders to fight and win wars. Finally, the focus solely on CTC rotations as evidence ignores the wealth of tactical models the SBCT could adopt from foreign formations and the US Army’s own experience when its primary infantry fighting vehicle was the M113A3. The Soviet Union (and Russia) utilized wheeled armored personnel carriers (APCs) in its formation for decades and continued to increase their lethality with each new model. That said, Soviet and Russian tactics emphasized BTRs in a support rather than direct contact role, something the United States could adopt. Also, because all Russian motorized rifle formations contained tanks, they utilized tracked BMPs (the Bradley analog) and wheeled BTRs roughly interchangeably. European allies fielded auto-cannon-equipped wheeled APCs over the previous 25–30 years as a matter of course. The French experience in Mali suggests that well-armed wheeled APCs can help dominate the battlespace under the right conditions. The models for employment abound, we need only adapt.
The operational-level criticism of the SBCT lethality upgrade rests in an institutional refusal to envision the SBCT’s use in the operational environment of today instead of that of the late 1990s, when the formation came into existence. Under the current mix of active brigade types (armored, Stryker, and infantry) it’s clear the SBCT bridges a gap between the rapid deployability of the IBCT and the high combat power and survivability of the ABCT. Originally the Army envisioned the SBCT as essentially an “IBCT-plus,” with organic wheeled transportation and additional assets for peace-keeping or low-intensity conflict. At the time, the inclusion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), human intelligence collectors in recon platoons, and the possible fielding of the Land Warrior system for dismounted soldiers indicated a preference for information dominance to overcome clear deficiencies in the formation’s firepower and survivability. Essentially, the formation would perform well in campaigns weighted heavily towards wide-area security, but be of limited use for combined-arms maneuver warfare.
This criticism rings hollow given evidence to the contrary. First, the baseline assumption of information dominance has proved problematic on two levels. Likely threat forces, from Russia to Hezbollah, closed the gap on the use of UAVs, electronic warfare, and networked communications with the United States, so the assumption that SBCT formations automatically have an intelligence edge is unfounded. Also, US communication systems never cut through the fog of war as advertised. Although UAVs and digital communications enhance tactical units’ proficiency, to suggest they completely overcome the Stryker’s vulnerabilities is problematic at best. One cannot wish away chance contact with enemy forces. Second, the current threat environment suggests the SBCT in future campaigns will face a host of near peer capabilities. Armored vehicles and anti-tank weapon systems do not solely belong to nation-states anymore, as recently evidenced by Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah and the current conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Analysis of Russia’s support to Ukrainian separatists suggests that any use of the SBCT in Russia’s near abroad may face an armored threat of some kind. Again, the presence of armor requires careful employment of forces by SBCT leaders, but clearly contact with other APCs is much more likely for the SBCT than originally envisioned.
Finally, it’s critical to consider how the SBCT may fit into a campaign with the two other BCT types. Were the United States to launch a campaign with some of its nine ABCTs (currently fully tasked against three regional contingency operations), one could imagine the SBCT employed in a “follow and support” role or mixed with ABCT forces due to its relative mobility and survivability compared to IBCTs. Without diverging into a discussion of campaign planning, one can agree that whatever the future use of the SBCT, to suggest it will remain solely on the wide-area security end of the spectrum of conflict ignores contrary evidence. SBCT units themselves expect the formation to perform against some armored threat given the right force ratios. Since 2012, SBCTs have participated in several CTC rotations that envisioned an armored opponent to some degree. Considering the number of BCTs under the current proposed force, the proliferation of armor and anti-armor threats, and the shift in understanding since the SBCT’s conception; turning down lethality upgrades to the formation is unwise.
At the strategic level, the Army faces many budget tradeoffs, even with the recent defense funding increase proposed by the Trump administration. One could cite the cost of fielding increased lethality and fears of another doomed armored vehicle acquisition like the Future Combat Systems as a key argument against the upgrade. Why spend good taxpayer money to upgrade a vehicle never designed to field a larger weapon system and incur the ensuing logistical problems like ammunition fielding, mechanic training, and repair costs? These issues bear important consideration, but ignore some salient points. First, taking the long view, the 30-millimeter cannon upgrade marks merely another notch in the evolution of the SBCT formation and platform. Since their formation in 2002, SBCTs saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and continued to tweak the platform and formation throughout. Some of these adaptations included: implementation of forward support companies, the double v-hull variant, consolidation of the MGS and ATGM variants into a single company, movement away from the necessity of C-130 transport, and other changes. All of these were initiated in response to identified capability gaps and vulnerabilities of the formation. The SBCT platform provides a solid automotive base for the formation and its evolution should be an example. Compared to the defunct Future Combat Systems or the ABCT, which cannot seem to find a replacement for the now thirty-plus-year-old M2 Bradley, surely the SBCT’s gradual evolution is a preferred model for acquisition and fielding. Second, criticism of the 30-millimeter cannon upgrade ignores the improvement in technology for unmanned turrets since the SBCT’s formation. Many European vehicles utilize an unmanned turret and to suggest that technical set-backs permanently tar the cannon upgrade overlooks the benefits. The operational needs statement process worked and the Army secured funds to provide a critical upgrade, one it should reinforce with full organizational support.
Although costly—$411 million to upgrade eighty-one Strykers for the Second Cavalry Regiment, and well over $1 billion to upgrade the entire Stryker fleet—the 30-millimeter cannon addition provides additional benefit well below the cost of a new vehicle acquisition. Given the apprehension over the lethality upgrade, it’s prudent to point out where the Army should focus its efforts in implementation across the SBCT force. Using the DOTMLPF-P lens for the lethality upgrade’s implementation, training, material, and personnel bear the most attention. Training the force to properly use the upgraded vehicles is a top priority. SBCT doctrine already de-emphasizes direct contact for the vehicle and should continue to do so. Making this doctrinal distinction real requires additional training—from a full new equipment gunnery to force-on-force training that highlights the upgraded Stryker’s capability and limitations. Force-on-force could demonstrate the upgraded vehicle’s increased range for support by fire and enhanced lethality against light armor, but also its continued vulnerability if forced to slug it out in direct contact.
The “material” realm perhaps provides the most problems. The final design consists of an unmanned Kongsberg MCT-30mm Weapon System atop a modified Stryker with only remote view through cameras to provide situational awareness. Due to the increased strain on the logistics system, training for maintainers, and a lengthy retrofit across the SBCT force, a hasty rollout of the new system as a reaction to unrest in Eastern Europe would be unwise. A well-executed testing and evaluation period for the new variant will reveal gaps and necessary logistics shortfalls.
Finally, the right personnel decisions to accompany the upgrade remain important. First, the 91S military occupational specialty (Stryker Systems Maintainer) must receive additional attention to maintain the new equipment. As an MOS already responsible for ten different variants of the vehicle, additional personnel, training, or both are in order to support the lethality upgrade. SBCTs enjoy considerable manufacturer support, but brigades must be able to maintain an appropriate degree of self-sufficiency. Second, the Army must continue to push for a Stryker Family of Vehicles Master Gunner additional skill identifier and course. A 30-millimeter cannon variant of the Stryker requires master gunner support to help implement the training strategy. Of course the lethality upgrade includes a comprehensive DOTMLPF-P implementation plan, but training, material, and personnel need the most focus.
The 30-millimeter cannon lethality upgrade to the SBCT platform marks another step in the formation’s evolution from simply a C-130-transportable motorized unit to a more robust ground formation that bridges the capability gap between ABCTs and IBCTs. Critics suggest that the costly upgrade could lead to a dangerous misuse of the formation against armored threats. This criticism ignores the evolving operational environment, faulty assumptions in the SBCT’s initial fielding, unwillingness to trust tactical leaders’ training, and employment of the platform. Embracing the lethality upgrade and continued evolution of a robust SBCT concept points towards an Army better prepared for future conflict.
Capt. Andrew Gregory is an armor officer and West Point graduate currently serving as a company commander in the 1st Cavalry Division. He served in Afghanistan, Korea, and Germany with operational experience as a Stryker reconnaissance platoon leader and support platoon leader in 2d Cavalry Regiment and as an operations officer and tank company commander in the 1st Cavalry Division.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.