The Stryker Combat Vehicle – A New Direction for Armour?

M1126 Stryker

The M1126 Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicle

Warfare has changed since the Second World War, and one of the biggest differences is that campaigns now tend to be asymmetric. It’s rare for two heavily equipped conventional armies to go into combat with each other, although it does happen occasionally. What’s more typical is for one army to be fighting a guerrilla or insurgent force. Typically the insurgents have more freedom to operate and hide among the population, but the military have the firepower and protection to utterly defeat them if they can bring them out into the open.

One question that many western military thinkers have started to ask themselves is exactly how much firepower and protection is necessary. If you’re going up against the Russian Army, which can put thousands of T72 and T90 tanks in the field, you’re going to need heavy weapons systems that can penetrate advanced reactive armour and survive the devastating blast of a 125mm gun. If your enemy are lightly armed irregulars with nothing heavier than an RPG-7, though, a Leopard 2 or M1 Abrams might be slight overkill.

The concept of medium forces aims to bridge the traditional gap between light infantry, who move on foot or in soft-skinned vehicles, and the heavy armoured forces used in manoeuvre warfare. Vehicles with the protection to resist an RPG and armed with light automatic weapons and grenade launchers would be able to survive the enemy’s attacks while killing the insurgents easily and without causing excessive collateral damage. They could also be wheeled, giving them the ability to self-move over long distances without needing tank transporters, and could be lighter and smaller, too; that would make them easier to transport by air and allow a force to be lifted into a conflict zone more quickly. Needless to say the fact that they should be cheaper wasn’t missed, either.

M1126 Stryker
The Stryker can be fitted with extra armour to match the threat. These ones have slat armour to defeat RPGs.

The US Army was one of the leaders in developing medium forces. The plan, initially announced in 1999, was for a vehicle that fell between heavy armour – which is well armed and protected, but slow and expensive to deploy – and lighter but more vulnerable vehicles like the HMMWV. What the Army wanted was something weighing between 15 and 20 tons, with enough protection to shelter its occupants from small arms, RPGs and fragmentation and the firepower to take on light enemy forces. A series of vehicles on a common chassis would provide personnel carrier, fire support and command variants, allowing easy maintenance and interchangeable parts wherever possible.

To save both time and costs the army decided to look for an off the shelf solution, at least for the basic vehicle, and chose the LAV III. This is a Canadian-made version of the Swiss MOWAG Piranha, a widely used family of 8×8 light armoured vehicles, and it had most of the features that were required. It was also a proven vehicle, which saved massively on development costs.

The benefits of choosing the LAV III quickly became obvious. The contract was awarded in 2000 and the first vehicles, an infantry fighting vehicle variant known as the M1126 Stryker, began entering service in 2002. Compared with the development saga of the M2 Bradley that’s amazingly fast. A range of other variants are also in service including a reconnaissance vehicle, a mortar carrier and fire support vehicles armed with either TOW missiles or a 105mm gun.

M1126 Stryker
The M1126 carries a full 9-man infantry squad.

The standard M1126 model weighs 19 tons and is armoured against 14.5mm rounds to the front and 7.62mm ball (but not armour piercing) all round. They can be fitted with additional ceramic panels to increase this to 14.5mm all round. As part of a planned upgrade they will be fitted with a shallow V hull to increase resistance to IEDs, which proved effective against the initial design. It carries a crew of two – driver and commander – as well as a nine-man infantry squad.

The standard armament is an M151 Protector remote weapon station mounted on the hull roof. This has both optical and thermal sights and allows a mounted weapon to be fired accurately from under armour. On the Stryker the weapon is an M2 .50 machinegun, an FN-MAG 7.62mm machinegun or a Mark 19 40mm grenade machinegun.

Mobility comes from an 8×8 drive system which can be switched to 8×4 for road movement. Tyre pressures can be adjusted from the driver’s seat and the tyres are also fitted with run-flat inserts that let the vehicle keep moving if pressure is lost. Power comes from a 350 hp (260 kw) Caterpillar C7 Diesel engine.

M1126 Stryker and C-17
Three Strykers can be carried by a C-17.

Where the Stryker really scores over similar vehicles is its situational awareness systems. It has datalinks and electronic mapping systems which integrate with Blue Force Tracker, automatically displaying the positions of all friendly units. Information can be securely transmitted between vehicles, allowing troops to stay highly aware of what’s happening on the battlefield even when their vehicles are buttoned up. The US Army’s Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, which were formed to use the new vehicle, should be able to dominate the ground better and react more quickly than has ever been possible before.

Well, that’s the theory. In reality the Stryker hasn’t been an outstanding success so far. To be fair, though, Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t the wars it was designed for. When it’s given a chance to prove itself in the right environment the Stryker has the potential to perform very well indeed, and every other major army will be watching with interest.