“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling workhorse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change.”
Proponents of the widespread addition of a 30-millimeter gun to the Stryker platform are very close to seeing their dream realized. Almost as soon as the upgrade was announced, a debate emerged between supporters and opponents of an up-gunned Stryker variant. Now, even as this new variant has been fielded to US forces in Europe, and while there may be some utility in the implementation of a more lethal weapon system attached to Stryker formations, the wholesale adoption of the 30-millimeter as a magic pill to improve lethality and deter aggression is a tactical solution to a strategic problem.
As Louis Sullivan so famously stated in his 1896 essay about the architecture of office buildings, “form ever follows function, and this is the law.” This statement is particularly applicable to the ICVD (Infantry Carrier Vehicle – Dragoon, the name given to the up-gunned Stryker variant). When looking at the case made for the ICVD, a couple key “functions” are continuously repeated to argue for its “form.” The first relates to Russia’s extensive use of more lethal motorized and tracked systems such as the BTR series, BMP series, and tanks. In this argument, either a lone Stryker brigade combat team (SBCT) is matched against the armored hordes of Russia and thus requires 30-millimeter cannons to even the odds, or the SBCT is partnered with one or multiple armored brigade combat teams in a combined-arms attack that faces a combined armored and motorized threat. However, this argument pre-supposes two false assumptions: One, that Russia will wage a war of aggression that meets or exceeds our—or NATO’s—threshold for lethal intervention, a possibility that neither recent conflicts nor Russia’s national defense doctrine strongly suggest. And two, that in the event of a war with the United States (that would inherently include most, if not all, of the other NATO countries) Russia would not consider it an existential threat and would not therefore use nuclear weapons—another assumption for which the opposite is true, based on Russia’s published military doctrine. In fact, as the US Army Operating Concept states, Russia is conducting “non-linear” operations “below the threshold that would elicit a concerted North Atlantic Treaty Organization response.” Take Russian actions in Syria, where Russia continues to operate in support of Bashar al-Assad, but below a level that requires a direct American or allied response. The same is true of Russia’s support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the most current Russian military doctrine from 2014 is defensive in nature and emphasizes “a general reduction in the likelihood of large-scale conflict involving Russia.” It also restates Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons “in the event of aggression against Russia or its allies, or in case of ‘threat to the very existence of the state.’” A concerted offensive action by NATO with the United States would most certainly be considered an existential threat, not only due to the action itself, but also because of the ownership of nuclear warheads by involved parties. Based on this analysis, the likelihood of employing the ICVD and its 30-millimeter cannon against the very threat that it is being fielded to meet seems unlikely at best.
Proponents for up-gunning the Stryker platform also argue that it is important as a conventional deterrent, believing it will “send a signal that we’re going to protect our allies but not provoke the Russians.” Just because a 30-millimeter gun “can destroy anything short of a heavy tank, and do considerable damage even to those” does not mean the SBCT armed with them can stop a Russian attack into central and western Europe. In 2016, the RAND Corporation published a wargame summary whose key findings were that with the current force posture in Europe, it would take Russia sixty hours to reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga and that a minimum “force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades—adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities—might prevent such an outcome.” Essentially, the tactical victory of 30-millimeter cannons against single-vehicle opponents on the speculative battleground of central Europe would not meaningfully deter or prevent a committed Russia from pursuing initial invasion objectives. It would require a strategic restructuring of the placement of ABCTs throughout the Army at a minimum, something that will require much more thought, and a significant deal of time.
For argument’s sake, there are two other likely operational environments that belie claims of the urgent need for the ICVD. The first is in the Pacific region, specifically against North Korea, another major threat identified in the Army Operating Concept. However, contingencies to fight in Korea should not include the ICVD. In fact, for that environment, plans should not rely on any mounted platforms. The terrain of the Pacific littoral, and Korea in particular, is inhospitable to armored and motorized formations. Instead, light infantry are proven to dominate its dynamic and complex terrain. The second environment centers around a hybrid threat focused in the Middle East. The Army Operating Concept anticipates hybrid threats in the future. Supporting this is a paper written by Maj. Michael Kim for the Institute of Land Warfare. In it, Kim examines the experience of Israel Defense Forces fighting against the hybrid threat posed by Hamas during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. His findings conclude that the increased threat from hybrid forces armed with current-generation anti-tank weapons and evolved tactics in and around urban environments is best countered by the use of light infantry with support from heavy tanks armed with active protection systems. He specifically quotes an Israeli officer commenting that “Strykers and MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] will not [withstand] a medium-heavy ATGM.” Instead, Kim notes that it should be “the role of the M1 Abrams tank . . . to provide a mobile and survivable precision firepower platform to execute effective combined-arms operations against a sophisticated hybrid threat with ATGM capabilities.” In other words, the Stryker platform, with or without a 30-millimeter upgrade, does not achieve the function demanded of mobile platforms in our future hybrid conflicts. Kim stresses that a top priority for the Army should instead be the adoption of an active armor protection system for all its mounted platforms. This recommendation is much more in line with effective Stryker employment and would enhance the Stryker’s ability to provide survivability to its real combat power, the infantry squad riding inside.
Given these arguments, and the fact that “potential enemies will use deception, surprise, speed, and all elements of national power to exploit seams within established U.S. operating methods,” what “form” should our response take? I believe the answer lies in the Army Operating Concept and the newly emerging doctrine of Multi-Domain Battle. The Army Operating Concept states:
The Army, as part of joint, interorganizational, and multinational teams, protects the homeland and engages regionally to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and create multiple options for responding to and resolving crises. When called upon, globally responsive combined arms teams maneuver from multiple locations and domains to present multiple dilemmas to the enemy, limit enemy options, avoid enemy strengths, and attack enemy weaknesses.
In a similar fashion, the joint Army and Marine Corps White Paper on Multi-Domain Battle states, “To generate and exploit psychological, technological, temporal and spatial advantages over an adversary, ground combat forces must physically and cognitively outmaneuver enemies . . . by holistically employing reconnaissance, movement, fires, and information to avoid surfaces, identify gaps, and create and exploit windows of advantage.” Put together, these documents make clear why the priority for Army forces needs to be the foundational application of combat power integrated across nations, services, and domains to achieve lethality through surprise, precision, and simultaneity.
A bigger weapon for the Stryker family is not the solution to the conflicts of the future against any of the major threats outlined by our senior Army leaders. If anything, the mass implementation of the 30-millimeter ICVD will take away from the focus required to make the squad carried by the Stryker the center of attention for training. Time, or the lack thereof, is the most finite resource of the Army today. The tempo of operations, combined with the administrative and non–readiness-building requirements of the typical SBCT, means that executing the gunnery required to effectively and safely employ the ICVD will take away from the focused training required to prepare lethal infantrymen. This is not a failure to give our company and battalion commanders their due credit, but an honest assessment of reality. However, if tactical lethality is still deemed an issue for the SBCT due to the potential of “chance engagements,” there are three points that should be considered.
First, the Army is already addressing the need for enhanced anti-armor capability mounted to the Stryker with the CROWS-J. It should stick with this upgrade rather than the ICVD. The CROWS-J will simply replace the current remote weapon station on identified vehicles and will be fitted with Javelin integration kits and STORM lasers. This system should achieve the function of providing enhanced lethality against armor threats throughout the SBCT formation.
Second, if a more capable vehicle-defeating gun is actually deemed necessary to replace or augment the mobile gun system capability in the SBCT, the Army should simply adopt the LAV III used by the US Marine Corps and integrate it into an infantry support platoon. By being integrated into an infantry support platoon, rather than taking the place of Stryker vehicles in Stryker companies, commanders can augment forces based on mission requirements and diverge and combine training when gates align, similar to the integration of the mobile gun system. Also, the LAV III’s 25-millimeter gun is a proven weapon that is already used by the Army on Bradley fighting vehicles in armor and mechanized infantry formations. This provides a greater level of interoperability with parts and ammunition. Proponents of the ICVD may argue that using a LAV III denies the parts commonality inherent in maintaining the Stryker platform. However, in order to handle its load, the ICVD requires a different engine, different suspension, different tires, and a different alternator, and it even adds an in-vehicle network. Essentially, it is a completely different vehicle in a cut-up Stryker frame, which will require the development of new mechanics courses and completely different parts ordering. In contrast, mechanics courses already exist for the LAV III, the parts are already in the supply system, and the 25-millimeter and the LAV III are already well understood. Thus, the training curve and logistical requirements for sustaining it would be less or simply equal to the ICVD, and it already exists.
Finally, if the ICVD truly fulfills an urgent and necessary function, its basis of issue and personnel requirements need to be fully understood and articulated before its implementation into the broader Stryker force. While its function in a permanent role as part of a Stryker infantry company is questionable, there is a very real need to enhance or replace the reconnaissance vehicle in the Stryker formation. This variant is the least capable of the Stryker family of vehicles and it belongs to the one organization constantly tasked to “fight for information.” In a “Stryker leader summit” that occurred in February 2017, 1-4 SBCT “Raider” identified that the reconnaissance force operating 50–60 kilometers ahead of the main body is at a significant disadvantage when it comes upon an armored threat. This would be the most likely way for an independent engagement between Strykers and enemy armor to take place as a chance meeting engagement, and is perhaps the best argument for a lethality upgrade to the platform, though limited to the reconnaissance element.
In conclusion, the Army is considering the adoption of the 30-millimeter ICVD based on a false understanding of its function in current Stryker doctrine and future warfare. The European theater, which initiated the request, is not at risk of a large scale armor battle. Russia’s military doctrine and recent actions all indicate that it does not intend to engage in a large conventional war but will instead act below the threshold of lethal response. Furthermore, if Russia did act rashly, it would take ABCTs to stop any heavily armored offensive. The adoption of the 30-millimeter gun also needs to be considered in the context of other conflicts and operating environments. It does not have a place in the Pacific, a major theater of operations dominated by complex terrain that demands dismounted infantry. And against hybrid threats, armed with modern ATGMs, heavier vehicles like the M1 Abrams are needed along with active protection systems. There is a place for a lethality upgrade to the Stryker, but it rests with the CROWS-J for most of the Stryker infantry companies, with consideration for a larger gun given to reconnaissance forces that are required to fight for information. However, any new platform introduced to the SBCT should be done slowly and with great thought given to the basis of issue to ensure that the “form” is following the “function.” The integration or re-creation of infantry support platoons may be the right answer to provide the greatest flexibility to commanders while protecting training requirements and focus. Regardless, it is clear that the tactical solution of a 30-millimeter cannon is not a magic pill. The conflicts of the future will be won through the complex integration of multilateral, combined arms, joint services, and enablers across multiple domains, to seize the initiative and attack and defeat the enemy at a time and place he least expects.
Zack Spear is an infantry officer and acting rifle company commander in a Stryker brigade combat team with a bachelor of science in Russian. He has experience in light infantry and Stryker formations, conducting DATE rotations at both JRTC and NTC as well as multiple exercises in the Pacific.
Image: Infantrymen with the 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment fire a Stryker 30-millimeter Infantry Carrier Vehicle – Dragoon during a joint, combined-arms live-fire exercise Aug. 26–30 at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland. (Credit: Sgt. John Onuoha, US Army)