New troop transport draws praise from soldiers

MOSUL, Iraq – For soldiers inside the U.S. Army’s newest troop transport vehicle, the armored combat Stryker rides like a cross-town bus as it sways softly atop its rubber tires, its brakes hissing quietly – before the back shoots open and troops leap onto the streets of one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities.

Some 300 Strykers are patrolling northern Iraq after their September 2003 introduction – vanguard of a multibillion dollar program that commanders say boosts their chances in a largely hit-and-run battle with insurgents.

Rank-and-file soldiers hailed the Stryker during recent patrols in Mosul as faster, quieter and safer than other combat vehicles – despite last week’s internal Army study that found numerous design flaws.

“We’ve been hit with (roadside bombs) and rocket-propelled grenades several times. We have taken direct machine-gun fire,” said Spc. George May of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division based in Fort Lewis, Wash. “The Stryker has saved everyone’s lives at least once. It’s perfect for what we’re doing, which is urban warfare.”

Strykers are designed to carry troops on patrols and into combat – like Bradley fighting vehicles, or the Humvees that have came under criticism for lacking proper armor. But while the boxy Strykers somewhat resemble tanks, they generally lack heavy cannons and are propelled by wheels instead of tracks.

In Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city with more than 2 million people, the Strykers race along main streets and creep quietly through winding back alleys, searching for insurgents who bury artillery shells and mines in roadsides and target the vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades.

Soldiers say the Stryker is quieter, allowing them to sneak up on the enemy. And they say its partially jerry-rigged armor guards them better than Humvees.

Unlike the tank-like, tracked personnel carriers that predominate across the rest of Iraq – such as the Bradley – the four wheels on either side of the 19-ton Stryker give it speed, stealth and mobility that allows it to outmaneuver insurgents, officers say.

“For what we’re doing, I think the Stryker is excellent,” said May, a 27-year-old native of Upper Dublin, Pa.

Still, an Army report from the Center for Army Lessons Learned found the vehicle bogs down in mud and the engine strains under 5,000-pound armor added by the Army.

The metal mesh armor, designed to deflect rocket-propelled grenades and large shrapnel from improvised bombs, has earned it a nickname: “the bird cage.”

The report also said the armor’s extra weight has caused problems with the automatic tire pressure system, requiring crews to check the tires three times a day.

“The Army should not put inadequately tested equipment in the field, as it creates a false impression that the troops are properly equipped to fight in combat,” said Eric Miller, who investigates defense issues for the oversight group.

In Iraq, infantrymen and officers bridled at the report, saying many of the problems have been fixed and insisting the Stryker’s speed – upwards of 60 mph – outweighs any deficiencies.

The soldiers’ duties in Mosul center on countering the militants’ favored attack tactics: suicide car bombings, roadside remote-controlled explosives and anti-tank mines wrapped in garbage bags and left along roads.

Soldiers who ride inside or stand up through portals in the roof spring from the Stryker’s back hatch to search vehicles for car bombs or passengers for illegal weapons. Bristling with guns and antennae, the vehicle will lurch to a halt while an officer screams: “Get out! Get out! Get out!” to urge his soldiers down a back ramp.

The soldiers say they often confiscate weapons and arrest suspected insurgents – contending the Strykers’ agility gives them the upper hand.

And without clattering tracks, the vehicles draw less attention, especially at night and during clashes, they say.

“For what we’re doing, the Stryker is much better than a Bradley, because it’s much faster and quieter,” said Spc. Michael Neel, a 24-year-old Stryker driver from Ridgecrest, Calif., who has also piloted a Bradley.

“Being quiet is an advantage because they don’t know where we’re at. If they attack us, we can circle around behind them without them hearing us, because the firefights are loud. You can’t even notice us driving up.”

Still, Neel says he’d rather ride in a Bradley during a large-scale battle between massed forces because of its heavier firepower.

The $7 billion Stryker program is intended as a stepping stone to the ultimate goal: a high-tech family of fighting systems known as the Future Combat System, expected to include unmanned ground and aerial vehicles.

Officers say the Stryker is part of a larger drive by the Pentagon to turn the Army into a fighting force that can react to threats more quickly.

Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, said his squad of Strykers has weathered about 100 rocket-propelled attacks, without one of the rounds ever killing a soldier inside.

Like the troops, Gibler, 41, of San Antonio, Texas, said he’s surprised by the Stryker’s civilian vehicle-like ride.

“I’ve got a Ford F-250 at home that I haul my horses around with,” he said. “And the Stryker arguably handles better than my truck.”

© 2005 The Associated Press