Jan 20, 2023
The 90 Stryker armored vehicles the United States has pledged to Ukraine could constitute the main equipment of an entire brigade.
That brigade would have clear strengths—and obvious weaknesses. It would be up to Ukrainian commanders to deploy the brigade in places that suit its unique qualities.
The eight-wheel Stryker, despite its impressive bulk, basically is an armored personnel carrier for up to nine infantry. A battle-taxi, one that the U.S. Army and manufacturer General Dynamics have optimized for urban operations.
The two-crew Stryker isn’t an infantry fighting vehicle in the class of the tracked M-2. And it certainly isn’t a tank like the M-1 is. It lacks the M-2’s anti-tank missiles, the M-1’s powerful main gun and the tracks and thicker armor of both types.
Just as a commander would be foolish to cram a tank brigade into a contested city where its cumbersome vehicles would be easy prey for infantry armed with shoulder-fired missiles, they would be equally foolish to send a lightly-armed Stryker brigade across fields and forests to meet enemy tanks whose crews can see them coming from miles away.
Each vehicle to its element. A truism that, when it comes to the arguably imbalanced Stryker, never has been more true.
The administration of U.S. president Joe Biden on Thursday announced the Strykers as part of a $2.5-billion military aid package that also includes 59 M-2s plus armored trucks, artillery, air-defenses and thousands of tons of ammunition.
The Strykers and Bradleys, when paired with another 50 M-2s the Biden administration previously pledged, “will provide Ukraine with two brigades of armored capability,” the Pentagon stated.
But the Strykers represent a fairly narrow capability. When, in the early 2000s, the U.S. Army formed the first of an eventual nine Stryker brigades, the idea was for the 3,000-person brigades—each with around 100 Strykers—to fly into battle aboard U.S. Air Force transport planes.
But the Stryker got bigger and heavier over time, even acquiring a new, angled bottom to deflect mine blasts. The vehicle swelled to its current weight of nearly 20 tons.
The U.S. Army no longer assumes Stryker brigades will move by air. Instead, the units typically deploy like mechanized and tank brigades do—by ship, rail and road.
However, the Stryker’s extra weight mostly has come from defensive alterations such as reshaping and additional armor. The vehicle is heavy but lacks firepower.
Most Strykers are armed only with a single, remotely-operated heavy machine gun—although the Army is upgrading several brigades with a so-called “Dragoon” variant of the vehicle that swaps out the machine gun for a 30-millimeter auto-cannon.
Yes, an American Stryker brigade includes a few howitzers as well as variants of their namesake vehicle packing mortars or anti-tank missiles. But those few supporting weapons don’t make a Stryker brigade a tank brigade—or even a mechanized brigade, for that matter.
Stryker brigades really are just infantry brigades—but with big, sophisticated armored personnel carriers. The infantry, not the vehicles, give the units their combat power. A Stryker brigade “is best employed as a dismounted fighting force,” U.S. Army major Walter Gray II wrote in a 2017 study.
And not just any dismounted infantry fighting force. An urban one. Extensive experience in Iraq underscored the Stryker’s unique strengths in crowded cities.
The first Stryker brigade to see combat was the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. In October 2003, the unit deployed to restive Mosul in northern Iraq. “The unit served in several roles which quickly gave the vehicles a positive reputation from the soldiers for its maneuverability, speed and quiet operation, making it favorable for raids, patrolling and cordon-and-search operations in the urban streets of Mosul,” Gray wrote.
The implications are obvious. The Ukrainian army should send its new Stryker brigade into urban fights. It should avoid sending the brigade into a direct fight with a Russian mechanized or tank brigade, especially on open terrain where tanks and fighting vehicles can bring to bear their superior long-range firepower.
It just so happens, there’s at least one sector of the Ukrainian front that’s almost all towns and cities. At least, the ruins of towns and cities. The sector around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.