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Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some Stryker tiles fail under fire; maker rushes to fortify vehicles

Seattle Times staff reporters

New live-fire tests by the Army have found that almost one-third of the ceramic armor tile used to protect troops inside the new Stryker carriers failed to meet the minimum requirements to stop heavy machine-gun fire.

The new disclosure from sources close to the program comes just weeks before 3,600 members of the Fort Lewis-based 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are scheduled to debut the Stryker vehicles in Iraq.

The vehicle's maker, General Dynamics Land Systems, is now rushing about 20 two-man teams to Fort Lewis to fortify the unit's 309 Stryker vehicles. The plan is to add a 3-mm steel backing to the armor, a fix expected to be completed by month's end.

Just two weeks ago, the Army confirmed only one flaw in the 39 major tile types that make up the vehicle's armor plating. But more live-fire tests completed yesterday in Aberdeen, Md., revealed that 12 of the tile types could not stop a 14.5-mm round, slightly bigger than a 50-caliber bullet.

"The bottom line is these vehicles will not be deployed" until they have the promised protection, said Army spokesman Maj. Gary Tallman. The $1.5 million Strykers, the Army's first new combat vehicles in 20 years, are covered by about 130 armor panels per vehicle. Each of the shaped panels is composed of numerous smaller ceramic tiles and other material pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The Strykers, which have eight wheels and carry up to 11 soldiers, are a cornerstone in the Army's efforts to transform itself into a faster and more agile fighting force. An entire brigade — including its full contingent of about 300 Stryker vehicles — is designed to be airlifted anywhere in the world in less than a week.

As home of the Army's first two Stryker brigades, Fort Lewis has become synonymous with the Army's transformation initiative. The vehicles can be equipped to fire mortars and anti-tank missiles, plow trenches, evacuate wounded soldiers and detect chemical and biological agents. A variation with a 105-mm cannon is in the works.

The Army and General Dynamics, meanwhile, are examining how the problem went undiscovered so late into production.

Army officials say that they first discovered problems with the ceramic panels in February, when an X-ray revealed that the armor's German designer, IBD, had changed the way the armor is made. The testing revealed changes in the ceramic composition, the size of the ceramic pieces within the panels, and other deviations.

In all, the Army has said it found 39 variations of the armor as opposed to the six it had approved.

But Ulf Deisenroth, president of the Bonn-based IBD, said he did not know until this month that the Army only authorized six variations. Deisenroth said he was surprised to learn of the Army's concerns from a Sept. 5 report in The Seattle Times.

Deisenroth said his company disclosed last year that there would be 26 tile variations. That information was reported to the lead Stryker contractor, a joint venture between General Motors Defense and General Dynamics Land Systems, he said. When design changes pushed that number up to 39, the new number was also passed on to the joint venture, Deisenroth said. The joint program is now controlled by General Dynamics.

"We feel we are being very unfairly treated," Deisenroth said. "This was not our fault."

The Army declined to comment on Deisenroth's comments.

Pete Keating, a spokesman with General Dynamics, said that Deisenroth's comment about the variations "doesn't track with any information I have," but he declined to go into detail about the corporation's dealings with the German subcontractor.

"The important thing to know is that our team is going to ensure that no troops from Fort Lewis deploy without 14.5-mm protection," Keating said. "And that IBD, General Dynamics and the Army are working to achieve that."

The Stryker concept has been controversial ever since its inception in 1999. Critics, including some within the Pentagon, have said the vehicles are difficult to transport by air, lack accurate firepower and are vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), which Saddam loyalists have used with deadly effect against American forces in Iraq.

Recent news of the armor problems have helped to further stoke the controversy. The Army defends the vehicles, saying that they are meant as troop carriers, not fighting vehicles, and that no vehicle in the inventory except M1 tanks are fully protected from RPGs. The vehicles also are being outfitted with an outer cage of slotted armor to protect against rocket-propelled grenades.

General Dynamics said the added weight of the steel panels and the slot armor would not hinder the vehicle's performance.

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com; Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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