The modern American Stryker Brigade Combat Team was conceived during the 1990s in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm and NATO’s involvement in Yugoslavia. In both operations, the Army found heavy armor units insufficiently mobile, both tactically and strategically, to be deployed to a crisis zone in a timely fashion.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait for example, the 82nd Airborne Division was rushed to the Saudi border. Even though the 82nd was light and ill equipped to handle Iraq’s armored divisions, it was deployed because it was one of the only units mobile enough to be quickly deployed to the region immediately. Other problems appeared later in the Balkans where the infrastructure and terrain made deploying heavy forces next to impossible.
American Stryker Brigades were designed to be a middle ground between slow and hard to deploy Armored Brigade Combat Teams and rapid reaction forces like the infantry brigades. Ideally, a Stryker brigade should take only 96 hours to get into action, with an entire division being able to hit the ground 120 hours. This, while still being survivable and heavily armed enough to hold off medium enemy formations.
This speed comes at a cost. Vehicles and artillery have to be constricted in size and weight in order to leverage smaller air assets like the C-130. Because of this, the SBCTs have no organic tank element and only three batteries of towed 155mm howitzers. Mobile artillery pieces like the Paladin and IVFs like the Bradley are completely absent.
The Stryker brigades then, are just that; brigades equipped with Stryker variants. While it is a versatile vehicle, the Stryker also has some major flaws as a universal platform. It’s armor is light, designed to protect troops against shrapnel and heavy machine gun fire. It cannot fight main battle tanks head on, as tank shells will blow right though it.
It’s firepower is also limited, with the most heavily armed Stryker variant being the Stryker mobile gun system and Anti-tank varient. The MGS was intended to give the brigades more firepower, but this was cancelled after 142 units, due to a litany of problems. While the mobile gun systems are still in service with the 2nd Calvary in Europe, the 105mm cannon is underpowered and cannot effectively destroy modern tanks. The anti-tank variant mounts only two launchers and must be reloaded manually from the outside of the vehicle.
Then of course there is the lack of artillery inherent in the structure of the brigade. While 18 155mm howitzers (6 per battery) is nothing to scoff at, it’s about half the size of a Russian Motor Rifle Brigades’s tube artillery loadout. The Stryker brigades have no rocket artillery either; compare this to the 18 MLRSs fielded in Russian MRBs.
In backwaters like Afghanistan where the armor is sparse and dated, Stryker brigades are sufficient to get the job done. The Strykers with ATGMs and MGSs are capable of dealing with old tanks and armored vehicles. The skies are also uncontested, allowing aircraft free reign to blast the old armor to flaming bits, but in Europe, the story is much different.
The Stryker concept was implemented near a high point of American global power to solve issues arising from fighting small, weak, and/or collapsing states and combating global terrorism. While these issues still exist, (and are possibly worse than ever) America is now facing the prospect of combat with near peer adversaries like Russia and China. Because America’s adversaries have ambitions that are more regional in nature, they are not as limited by mobility and field heavier mechanized infantry formations.
Take the 200th independent Motor Rifle brigade for example. Stationed in Northwestern Russia, the 200th comes equipped with an organic tank battalion of 41 T-80 main battle tanks. The artillery is composed of 18 Grad MLRS and 36 “Msta” 152mm self-propelled howitzers. A brigade will also have several battalions of BMP-3 and BTR mounted infantry, each vehicle equipped with an autocannon capable of taking out a Stryker.
To sum that up, a Russian MRBs have 41 more tanks and 36 more short range rocket and tube artillery pieces than any given SBCT. As they stand now, American Stryker brigades like the 2nd Cavalry are totally out gunned in Europe. They are simply not configured to handle heavy formations like this.
The U.S is currently attempting to offset this deficiency by upgunning their Strykers with 30mm cannons and mounting Javelin ATGMs onto the rest. There is also a push give every infantry platoons a AT4 recoiless rifles to add more tank killing ability and firepower to light forces. New technology like the IFPC and active protection systems may also play a part it mitigating Russia’s artillery and tank advantage.
While all of these offsets will help mitigate the inherent weakness of the Stryker Brigades, they will not get rid of the issues with the platform itself. Wheeled armored vehicles will never by a match for main battle tanks. If the United States is serious about deterring Russian aggression, it cannot rely on it’s mechanized forces as they now stand.
At the same time, it is clear that the Stryker Brigades are still needed. The requirement for an easily deployable medium armored force for rapid interventions is still necessary. This being the case, I see two possible options:
1)Forward Base Armor
To supplement the Brigades, forward basing Armored Brigades in critical regions is the obvious solution. Like another Rand study suggested, America and NATO could begin permanently basing heavy armor in Europe if they intend to defend the Baltics and deter Russia. While the U.S is attempting to control escalation with Russia by preserving the NATO-Russia Founding Act, we are now well beyond the “foreseeable security environment” referenced in the document. Russia has annexed parts of Ukraine and is opening threatening strikes on Poland and Romania.
2) American Motor Rifle Brigades
Alternatively, America could create an analog to Russia’s motor rifle brigades; bulking up a few Stryker brigades with tank companies and adding HIMARS companies. The HIMARS are light, but much more mobile than the towed M777s currently in inventory, giving artillery the ability to shoot and scoot to avoid return fire from the heavily armored Russian howitzers. Such a system would bulk up the brigades artillery and give it greater range while still maintaining it’s mobility. While these changes would slow the deployment time and make the brigades less deployable to places with rough terrain or limited infrastructure, it would make them much more capable of dealing with the heavy armor present in Russian mechanized formations.
As the demise of Task Force Smith demonstrated in the Korean war, having troops on the ground is not the same as having an effective combat force. Heavy armor is needed in situations like the one that occurred at Osan, where enemy armor was numerous and air support was cut off because of political considerations, leaving an outnumbered battalion of light infantry unable to halt the communist advance with their underpowered weapons.
The configuration of today’s Stryker brigades only heighten the risk that another Osan will occur again in the Baltics. Today’s A2/AD weaponry or considerations about attacking Russian territory could leave American troops without air support and new Russian active defense systems could shift the balance between tanks and ATGMs. This would leave the Strykers vulnerable to being overrun by enemy armor.
The Stryker brigade is a solid concept but needs to be updated to deal with current challenges. Vulnerabilities inherent with the platform need to be addressed and the Army needs to back these brigades with more armor to effectively combat modern conventional adversaries that field heavier formations. To ignore this reality risks another catastrophe like Task Force Smith and the loss of key NATO territory.