Army Transforming Stryker Into Lethal Combat Platform for Great Power Conflicts
Great Power competition is back and with it the requirement that the U.S. Army be able to deter heavily armed peer adversaries. In Europe, the Army found itself outnumbered, outranged and outgunned. One of the few steps it could take immediately was to put a bigger gun on its thousands of Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicles. As an experiment, it added a new gun and turret to a handful of vehicles in one brigade. This effort proved so successful both in speed and outcome that now the Army intends to up-gun the remaining eight brigades.
When Russia invaded Crimea, the U.S. Army was shaken out of its near-reverential fixation with counterinsurgency operations. It faced the prospect of a high-end conventional conflict with two near-peer competitors who had spent decades designing and building military forces intended specifically to defeat U.S. forces. In the likeliest theaters of confrontation, Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific, U.S. forces were at a disadvantage. Years of relative peace had encouraged successive U.S. Administrations to withdraw most Army combat forces from Europe, leaving behind a corporal’s guard consisting of two light brigades: one, a two- battalion airborne unit, and the other a lightly-armored Stryker formation.
The Army now is pursuing a multi-faceted effort to transform its concept of operations, force structure and capabilities to meet the challenges of Great Power competition and, potentially, high-end conflict. Additional forces, particularly heavy armor, had to be returned to the European theater. In addition, existing platforms, from Abrams tanks to self-propelled artillery and Stryker vehicles, needed to be rendered more lethal. Finally, the Army needed to jump start modernization, designing and acquiring advanced long-range fires, air and missile defenses, aviation platforms and communications systems with which to prevail in a high-end conventional conflict.
When the shift to Great Power competition occurred, the Army faced possibly the most challenging acquisition environment. There were virtually no new programs that could be accelerated. In many areas, such as long-range fires, mobile tactical air and missile defense, and electronic warfare, the Army was technologically behind its competitors and needed to come up with new capabilities, fast. Moreover, the Army faces a broad array of immediate challenges, what it called warfighting gaps, which need to be addressed quickly and economically.
One thing the Army could do relatively rapidly is upgrade existing fleets of combat vehicles. A poster child for fast acquisition of relevant capabilities for the Army is General Dynamics’ Stryker Combat Vehicle. The Stryker was initially intended as an interim solution to the need for a light armored vehicle that could be rapidly deployed around the globe, particularly to places without massive logistics and transportation infrastructure. When the Future Combat System was canceled, the Stryker became the long-term solution. The Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCT) are fast-moving, infantry-oriented units with additional firepower, including a mortar vehicle and a mobile gun system. The largest number of Stryker vehicles, the infantry carriers, mount a turret armed with a fifty-caliber machine gun. Today, there are eight SBCTs, including one in the National Guard. Stryker units have performed superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hard on the heels of the Russian seizure of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, The Second Cavalry Regiment, a Stryker-equipped formation based in Europe, sent out an Urgent Operational Need Statement for a more lethal weapon for its infantry carriers. Rather than going back to the drawing board to invent a new ground combat vehicle that would not be available for twenty years, the Army wisely decided to upgrade its existing fleets of armored fighting vehicles. Part of the solution was to replace the Stryker infantry vehicle’s standard 50 caliber machine gun with a longer-range, highly lethal 30-mm cannon. General Dynamics and its partners, Orbital ATK and Konigsberg, took the “Dragoon” variant of the Stryker from an idea on paper to the first new model delivered in only 18 months.
Now the Army has decided to up-gun the rest of its Stryker brigades. This is an important initiative. Stryker brigades can be deployed more rapidly than armored brigade combat teams but are more mobile and lethal once on the ground than traditional infantry brigades. With a new 30-mm gun and, possibly, anti-tank guided missiles, Stryker brigades would be a potent force with which to deter Russian or Chinese aggression.
Unfortunately, the Army’s acquisition system is likely to turn this into a long and expensive process. When the Army gave General Dynamics the job to find an appropriate turret for the Dragoon variant, the company took about three months to conduct the necessary evaluations and get the winner in production. The Army's current acquisition plan is first to conduct a design integration study with up to eight competitors providing turrets and fire control systems. Sometime in 2020, the Army will initiate a second phase with the release of a competitive production solicitation. If all goes well, a single award will be made the next year and the first up-gunned vehicle delivered in 2022. That is three years for an upgrade that has already been developed and fielded. So much for rapid acquisition.
The current lethality program is but one of several where the Stryker vehicle is serving as the basis for the rapid deployment of new or enhanced capabilities. The Stryker has been chosen as the platform to carry the Army’s Interim Mobile Short-Range Air Defense System. This system deploys a 30-mm gun along with both Hellfire and Stinger missiles. The Army could soon deploy a Mobile High-Energy Laser on the Stryker, along with small vertical-launched drones.
The Army has pinned all its hopes in achieving success with its six modernization priorities. But even if wildly successful, it will be decades before existing fleets are fully replaced. In the meantime, it makes eminent sense to enhance the effectiveness of existing main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, attack and lift helicopters and, of course, the Strykers.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.