(CNSNews.com) - An Army vehicle controversial since it was conceived in the late 1990s is facing mounting scrutiny from military experts and a leading government watchdog amid a recent spike of American casualties in Iraq.
The Stryker Light Armored Vehicle, manufactured by General Dynamics, was designed as a fast, medium-weight combat vehicle that can be airlifted into combat zones. It was originally intended as a key component to a more nimble and mobile Army.
But since March, when Stryker brigades were deployed in Iraq's violent Diyala province, casualties associated with the vehicles have been rising steadily. They have been found to be particularly vulnerable to automatic weapons fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One infantry company stationed in Diyala lost five Strykers in less than a week, the Associated Press reported last month.
Still, about 700 soldiers and nearly 100 Stryker vehicles have been deployed to Diyala this year as part of the "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
"The whole basis for the Stryker was the fundamentally false assumption that you did not need heavy armor and you did not need direct, organic firepower," retired Col. Douglas MacGregor, a military writer and analyst, told Cybercast News Service. "The idea was that you would know where the enemy was and the enemy would not know where you were. This is hardly the case in Iraq."
Others have defended the vehicle as an important staple in the Army's overall force.
"We have to be careful of two things," Dan Goure, a vice president at the Lexington Institute, told Cybercast News Service. "First, not to think that all vehicles in urban settings or insurgency settings must be 40-ton or 50-ton armored behemoths. And second, that the only kind of conflicts that we're going to be fighting are Iraq-like. Neither is true."
A General Accounting Office report issued after a federal investigation of the Stryker and its closest competitor, the United Defense M113, praised the Stryker for being comparatively quiet and heavily armored. The report also noted that the Stryker could achieve a maximum speed of 60 mph which is 15 mph faster than the M113.
The Stryker's speed can be very extremely beneficial in urban warfare, said Kendall Pease, vice president of communications at General Dynamics.
"This is a transport vehicle. It's not intended for heavy urban combat, though it has proven its mettle in transporting troops stealthily and quickly into battle." Pease told Cybercast News Service. "It's not a tank you can hear coming from eight blocks away."
Conflict of interest alleged
On November 19, 1999, six weeks before Lt. Gen. David K. Heebner was scheduled to retire from his post as the Army's assistant vice chief of staff, General Dynamics
Announced that he was taking up a "newly created position" of the company's vice president of strategic planning.
Heebner got 4,000 shares of stock in March 2000. The following November, the Pentagon awarded General Dynamics with a $4 billion contract to build the Strykers. According to the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, by 2005 Heebner's stock had grown to 28,859 shares, valued at $3.4 million.
This sparked suspicion among some Stryker critics that Heebner may have violated conflict of interest rules that prohibit government officials from being directly involved in a matter that could affect their personal financial interests.
But an internal Pentagon review into the matter concluded, "Given the lack of evidence for a conflict of interest violation, any further investigative work would take on the character of a 'fishing expedition.'"
The review, by the Department of Defense Inspector General (IG) office, also stated that in July of 1999 Heebner issued a memo to his staff and supervisors informing them, "I have a financial interest in the following organizations because I intend to seek and possible [sic] negotiate employment with them." In the memo he listed 12 companies, including General Dynamics. The report also found that he held no General Dynamics stock while employed by the Army and that he had not dealt with procurement matters during his last six years of active duty.
Nonetheless Stryker critics want more answers.
"There definitely should have been an investigation," said Nick Schwellenbach, defense investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, which obtained the IG report dated Feb. 2, 2004. "Just look at the timeline. It raises eyebrows."
"You can officially recuse yourself, but was he truly out of the process?" Schwellenbach asked. "This is not a tiny contract. Billions of dollars are at stake and lives are at stake. This is a war."
Bruce Shrader, a former employee of United Defense -- which lost a contract bid awarded to General Dynamics to build the Stryker -- has been independently investigating the Stryker vehicle and what led to the awarding of the contract.
"Are we supposed to believe that he bought all [the stock shares] on his Army salary?" he asked.
In 2003 Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) -- an advocate of the United Defense vehicles built in his congressional district -- asked the Pentagon's IG office to investigate Heebner's relationship with General Dynamics.
In a Feb. 11, 2004 letter to Platts, the IG office said there was no conflict. On Oct. 13, 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Platts declining to pursue a criminal probe into the Heebner matter.
Platts declined to comment for this story.
Heebner, promoted in 2005 to head the land systems division of the company, would not be available for comment on this story, said Pease, the General Dynamics spokesman.
Heebner's acquisition of stock came in the form of standard company compensation packages, Pease said, noting that General Dynamics' stock options had been rising rapidly at the time of Heebner's hiring.
Pease called allegations of wrongdoing "baloney" and added the "IG report showed there was nothing to it -- no evidence of anything."
Army on wheels
Promoted heavily by former Army Joint Chief General Eric Shinseki, the Stryker was initially devised in 1999 as a key component in an entirely transformed Army, one that could airlift, deploy, and assault enemies with speed and alacrity. Shinseki commanded the NATO Stabilization Force during the Bosnia intervention and many analysts believe this experience profoundly shaped his military philosophy.
Shinseki's plan for transformation also called for wheeled combat vehicles rather than the tracks typically seen on an Army tank. "[Shinseki] wanted to shake up the status quo," according to a 2002 West Point report titled "US Army Stryker Interim Armored Vehicle: Issues and Questions."
"He had been heavily influenced by peacekeeping in the Balkans where wheels proved ideal against no opposition and where most military traffic was road bound," the report said.
The Stryker vehicle' 19 ton weight is distributed over eight wheels. Critics charge that the unarmored wheels are vulnerable to automatic weapons fire and do not provide the maneuverability afforded by tracks.
"A track is 28 percent more efficient in terms of space [than wheels]," MacGregor said. "It has much lower ground pressure. It is a stable platform that allows you to mount an automatic cannon and drive and shoot simultaneously because the tracks provide a stable platform. And finally, the track chassis distributes the weight more effectively, providing for greater survivability."
Supporters assert that the Stryker is just one part of the Army as a whole and that the speed provides by its design has proven valuable in certain situations.
"We [at General Dynamics] bleed military," Pease said. "We're not going to give our soldiers a vehicle we don't believe in."
An Army spokesperson did not respond to repeated inquiries on the matter. The vehicle has support of key military commanders in the field, such as Col. Robert B. Brown, commander of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Stryker Brigade Combat team. In press reports, Brown said the Stryker saved the lives of at least 100 soldiers.
MacGregor dismissed such praise.
"Unfortunately, there are too many light infantrymen with little experience in armored vehicles who think that the Stryker is the answer for them," he said. "They just don't have the background and the experience to know that there are better alternatives out there."
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