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December 10, 2003
ABC-News producer Mike Gudgell and I were walking along a dirt road at Camp Udari, Kuwait, just days before we headed into Iraq, when something large and lethal passed us from behind.
A 20-ton, eight-wheeled, lightly armored Stryker.
We never heard it coming.
That was my first introduction to just how unique these armored personnel carriers really are, and why the Army has brought almost three-hundred of the new vehicles to Iraq.
They are spookily quiet. They are ridiculously fast. And they have coffee makers inside. The latter being the most salient point, according to the men who ride in these things. But the Army considers the first two qualities tactically crucial as they face off with a new type of enemy in a new kind of war. The insurgents setting off improvised explosive devices or firing rocket propelled grenades at U.S. soldiers tend to not stand and fight a pitched battle. Rather they hit quickly and move away, sometimes not even staying around long enough to gauge the results of their attacks.
So the soldiers of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, now known as the Stryker Brigade, have adopted a new method of reacting to attacks: they rush towards the source, and they open the back hatch of the vehicles. Depending on how many vehicles are on patrol, out pours upwards of thirty highly-trained infantrymen to chase down the insurgents. Meanwhile, the Strykers stay on the periphery, scanning the fields or buildings with their thermal cameras and covering the troops with a .50 caliber machinegun or Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher.
The tactic is new. The vehicles are new. The brigade is new.
It’s all part of the transformation of the Army into what they hope will be a relevant force with units able to dash to trouble spots anywhere in the world, within 92 hours, and have with them enough fire-power to handle things. Right now, the Army is comprised of heavy mechanized divisions like the 3rd ID, which pummeled its way to Baghdad in historic fashion; or light divisions like the 101st Airborne, which has no armored vehicles, save a few “up-armored” humvees, and very little heavy weaponry. There’s nothing in the middle.
At least, not until now. The 3rd Brigade, 2nd ID is the first of six such Stryker Brigades already funded and being constructed now, which comprise a true medium-weight force, meaning they’re theoretically “light” enough to be flown hundreds of miles, but they’re equipped with armor and, eventually, some big guns. Each Brigade is designed as an expeditionary force; that is, they can be sent to the corners of the world and function, and fight, independent of any support for up to three days. They have their own organic artillery units, intelligence units, and sniper units, with more snipers than most Army divisions have. The brigades are also issued their own UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drone aircraft used to view a battlefield and send back real-time video so the unit’s commanders have a clear idea of what lies before them.
Central to the unit’s ability to “See first, act first, act decisively” is a computer system dubbed the FBCB2. There’s a screen and keyboard next to the vehicle commander’s seat. It links all the vehicles with each other and the entire command structure, so that a general at division headquarters can see on his 40-inch plasma screen a map showing exactly where every single Stryker is and where every enemy contact is. It’s like the observer-mode in a video game, where you can watch it all unfold before you in real time. Each vehicle also has instant email ability, so the squad leader, for instance, can fire off a request for air support or medical evacuation.
As anyone not living in a cabin in the woods knows, with all this technology things are bound to go wrong. And they do. I’ve witnessed half-a-dozen Stryker computers crash or seize up. The radio communications, always the bane of the soldier in the field, still has problems. But this time, the Army put multiple radio systems in each vehicle, so that there’s probably always at least one working. And the Army went one step further in keeping the units self-reliant as possible: each vehicle has a trained computer whiz on board, a soldier who can troubleshoot the problems – when he’s not actually shooting at trouble, that is. Every soldier has more than one skill; auto-mechanic, medic, cook.
Most of the officers say that’s what really makes this brigade unique: the quality of and training the soldiers receive. They have unprecedented responsibilities, and the field officers and sergeants are empowered to make command decisions quickly without having to run everything up the chain of command. The officers say that can mean the difference between catching a terrorist in the act, or just finding the bomb he was constructing.
And I keep reminding myself that this is, in effect, a shake-down cruise, albeit with life or death implications. The Stryker vehicles went from concept to combat in three years – nothing short of miraculous in a military that prefers to test, retest, and test again every system. It normally takes a minimum of eight years for new equipment to make it into the hands of soldiers.
The Strykers aren’t perfect: it was discovered that their armor, even when bolstered with additional ceramic tiles, won’t withstand certain kinds of rocket propelled grenades. So the Army quickly ordered “slat-armor” be installed, which theoretically catches rpg’s and causes them to detonate inches away from the vehicle’s skin. Some of the soldiers derisively call the addition “bird cages.” But, as one battalion commander put it, “If it saves one guy’s life, it’s worth every penny.”
The Strykers are heavier than expected now, with the additional armor, and wider. That means they probably can’t be air-lifted as far, as fast, as the Army projected. A rash of recent reports by the GAO and the Rand Corporation list other faults, and the main punch of the brigade, a Stryker-mounted 105mm gun, is still years away from being fielded, if ever.
But since most of the soldiers in Iraq are being killed riding around in unprotected humvees or trucks, the complaints of the critics fall on deaf ears with the guys who come and go from their foot-patrols in armored comfort.
Last night, less than a week after the unit arrived here in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the new equipment and tactics paid off for the first time. Alpha Company spotted two men in a field doing something suspicious. On their rubber tires, the huge vehicles slipped up close and the soldiers quickly captured the men, who had with them dynamite, mortar rounds, and AK-47 rifles. They were allegedly building another IED, or Improvised Explosive Device, the sort of booby-trap contraption that has killed and injured dozens of U.S. troops over the past months.
This is perhaps the most dangerous place in the world for Americans. Yet, almost five-thousand young men and women from Ft. Lewis, Washington have arrived here to relieve the weary and deserving troops who’ve dodged the frequent mortar attacks, rpg’s and the baleful glares of the populace for seven or eight months now. When I rode into Iraq with the 101st Airborne during the opening stages of the war, we were greeted by cheering throngs of Iraqis. But that was south of Baghdad. Up here, you’re more likely to get a thumb’s down gesture than a wave. The people in this area had a benefactor in Saddam, and it’s apparent, on the surface at least, that they deeply resent the Army’s presence.
The Stryker Brigade’s work in Iraq has only just begun. There are operations in the works that will tax the new equipment, the new technologies and certainly the new, and mostly very young, soldiers. It has already cost three young men their lives, when a Stryker slid sideways down one of the ubiquitous canals in this area and turned over. The three soldiers drowned. There will, we all fear, be more young people not going home.
That is the part of war that is never new. And so far, no technology yet invented can prevent it.