In pine-covered foothills below Mt. Rainier, camouflaged US troops are staging raids, assaulting mock villages, and fording rivers in a new, eight-wheeled armored vehicle that the US Army hails as the vanguard of a more agile future force.
"This is better than a tank," says Sgt. Sean O'Connor, climbing into a Stryker vehicle, which is swifter, smoother, and quieter than ear-ringing tanks and armored personnel carriers. Sergeant O'Connor and other members of two new Stryker brigades at Ft. Lewis are test-drivers in a larger experiment to "transform" the Army from a lumbering, cold war behemoth arrayed for linear battles to a rapid, information-age ground force that fights unconventionally.
The first Stryker vehicles began arriving in June, and debuted in their first major exercise in California in August. In all, the Army plans to buy more than 2,000 Stryker vehicles at a cost of about $4 billion to outfit six new brigades, each with about 3,500 soldiers, at bases around the US by 2007. The first brigade will be ready to deploy by May 2003.
Still, the program is controversial: Some critics favor older, tracked vehicles, while others say the Stryker brigades are not futuristic enough, and should be limited to two or three.
The purpose of the new units is twofold, Army officials say. First, they will fill a void between heavy and light forces that has been apparent for more than a decade. Meanwhile, they will serve as a laboratory for a longer-term project to convert the entire Army into a high-tech "Objective Force" by around 2030.
In 1990, the gap in US forces was exposed when US airborne units deployed to Saudi Arabia days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The lightly armed foot soldiers risked being overpowered by heavier Iraqi armored forces. Again, during the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the options for US ground forces appeared limited to large contingents of troops that would take months to position.
The Stryker brigades fill the gap by providing some armored protection along with battlefield mobility and firepower that light brigades lack. At the same time, Stryker vehicles weigh less and are more rapidly deployable than tanks, although they lack tanks' punch and heavy armor. The goal of Stryker brigades though it's not yet met is to deploy in 96 hours and sustain themselves for three days without resupply.
Two basic types of vehicles make up the brigades. The "infantry carrier vehicle" has room for a nine-man infantry squad, a crew of two, and a mounted .50 caliber machine gun. A "mobile gun system," still under development, will carry a 105-mm cannon to support the assaulting infantry. The infantry carrier can travel at up to 60 m.p.h., weighs about 20 tons, has armor to deflect 14.5 mm ammunition, and fits onto the Air Force's main C-130 Hercules transport plane.
AT the brigade's first major exercise, Millennium Challenge 2002, at Ft. Irwin, Calif. in August, a company of soldiers unloaded the Strykers from C-130s and reconfigured them for combat in about 11 to 17 minutes, according to official accounts. They maneuvered quickly up steep, rocky mountain passes as well as over urban terrain at night. Flat tires did not stop the vehicles because they have a "run flat" option.
The Strykers returned to Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma by rolling aboard an experimental high-speed military catamaran, the HSV-X1, which cruises at more than 40 knots an hour four times as fast as the existing Army fleet.
Demand for the medium-weight Stryker brigades is already strong, especially as the war on terrorism adds to a growing list of military contingencies around the globe, Army officials say. Indeed, had they been fully operational, Stryker brigades "would have been used in the Balkans, Mogadishu, and Afghanistan today," according to an Army document on the vehicles.
"The Stryker brigade by design is sort of like a jack of all trades," says Command Sgt. Maj. Carlton Dietrich of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, one of the two Ft. Lewis brigades. "It can flex into offensive operations, into stability operations, and into peacekeeping."
Unlike existing brigades, the Stryker brigades incorporate reconnaissance squadrons with unmanned drones, as well as intelligence, artillery, and engineering units, into a cohesive package.
Also, the Stryker vehicles have shared digital screens, known as FBCB2, that track the location of friendly and enemy forces. The brigades will help develop a future force that relies on real-time information and precision weapons.
Yet some Pentagon officials question whether the initiative is futuristic enough. Facing a financial crunch known as the "bow wave," with spending on ongoing military programs expected to surpass future budgets by tens of billions of dollars, Pentagon officials and military analysts say the Stryker program along with others could be scaled back. One plan would cut the number of Stryker brigades to two or three to budget for more advanced warfighting technologies.
Some Pentagon officials worry that "the more money we spend on systems like Crusader or the Strykers, which are transitional systems, the greater the risk that the funding to build the modern force will not be there," says Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Yet some in the Army are wary of relying on the development of unseen technologies that require exhaustive intelligence and coordination of strikes from afar. "You want perfect 'situational awareness,' yet we can't even see groups going back and forth in the mountains of Afghanistan," says one Army think-tank official.