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Monday, May 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Insurgents "learning how to defeat" Strykers

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — A string of heavy losses from powerful roadside bombs has raised new questions about the vulnerability of the Stryker, the Army's troop-carrying vehicle hailed by supporters as the key to a leaner, more mobile force.

Since the Strykers went into action in violent Diyala province north of Baghdad two months ago, losses of the vehicles have been rising steadily, U.S. officials said.

A single infantry company in Diyala lost five Strykers this month in less than a week, according to soldiers familiar with the losses. The overall number of Strykers lost recently is classified.

In one of the biggest hits, six American soldiers from Fort Lewis and a Russian journalist were killed when a huge bomb exploded beneath their Stryker on May 6. It was the biggest one-day loss for the battalion in more than two years.

"They are learning how to defeat them," a senior Army official in Washington said of Iraqi insurgents.

The Army introduced the eight-wheeled Strykers in 1999 as a key component of a ground force of the future that would be faster and more agile than armored tank units but offering more firepower and protection than traditional light-infantry units. Each vehicle costs more than $2 million, and has high-tech equipment to aid in communications and surveillance. In the combat zone, the vehicles — in addition to armor — have been outfitted with steel cages to deflect attacks from rocket-propelled grenades.

The Army has ordered nearly 2,900 vehicles for its $13 billion Stryker program.

Fort Lewis has been a hub of Stryker research and training. The post also has the only two Stryker brigades now serving in Iraq, with hundreds of the vehicles. Some vehicles are used in rapid-response strike forces. Others are stationed in smaller outposts with Iraqi units.

The vehicles can carry up to 11 soldiers, compared with four soldiers in the typical Humvee.

Supporters of the Strykers, which have been used in Iraq since late 2003, say the vehicles have offered far more protection than the more than 18,000 Humvees that operate in Iraq. Even with armor upgrades, the Humvees have proven far more vulnerable to roadside bombs.

"I love Strykers," said Spc. Christopher Hagen, based in Baqouba. "With Strykers, you're mobile, you're fast. You can get anywhere anytime. They bring a lot of troops to the fight."

But some analysts have long questioned the wisdom of moving away from more heavily armored tracked vehicles, like tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, to wheeled transports, like the Stryker.

They say that is especially true in Iraq, where powerful bombs — not rocket-propelled grenades or small-arms fire — are the main threat.

"The Stryker vehicle was conceived at a time when the Army was more concerned about mobility and agility than it was about protection," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst from the Lexington Institute. "Stryker was the answer to that need."

The Stryker's vulnerabilities have become increasingly apparent since a battalion of about 700 soldiers and nearly 100 Stryker vehicles from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division was sent to Diyala province in March to bolster an infantry brigade struggling to restore order there.

Trouble started as soon as the Strykers arrived in Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala.

U.S. commanders ordered the vehicles into Baqouba's streets at dawn the day after they arrived. The hope was that the menacing vehicles — armed with a heavy machine gun and a 105-mm cannon — would intimidate insurgents and reassure local residents.

Instead, insurgents hammered the Strykers with automatic-weapons fire, rocket-propelled grenades and a network of roadside bombs. By the end of that first day, one American soldier was dead, 12 were wounded and two Strykers were destroyed.

A few days before the May 6 attack that killed the six soldiers and the journalist, troops scrambled out of another damaged Stryker and took cover in a house while they watched the vehicle burn. Several of them were injured but none seriously.

Losses have since mounted.

A few days after the May 6 blast, two Strykers were hit by bombs, and one soldier was killed and another seriously wounded.

Lt. Col. Bruce Antonio, who commands a Stryker battalion in Diyala, said he and his soldiers still have confidence in the Strykers and noted they had survived many bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices or IEDs.

But Antonio said some insurgents had found "the right mix of explosives and IED positioning to inflict severe damage on the vehicle." He noted that tanks had also proved vulnerable.

The insurgents also apparently are becoming better at hiding the devices: The IED that killed the six soldiers and the journalist was believed to have been hidden in a sewer line. Insurgents surrounded the device with cement to channel the blast force, according to soldiers familiar with the investigation.

Supporters of the Strykers say all that proves is that the lethality of bombs in Iraq — not the Strykers themselves — is the problem: The bombs are now so powerful that even Abrams tanks are vulnerable.

The Army is moving ahead with plans to fully equip seven Stryker brigades that will operate more than 2,100 vehicles. They also are moving to begin to replace the far more numerous Humvees with a new generation of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. They are called MRAPS, and their V-shaped hulls are designed to deflect bomb blasts outward.

The Pentagon has requested nearly 7,800 of the new vehicles at a cost of $8.4 billion and is considering ordering thousands more.

Compared to Humvees, military officials say the new vehicles provide twice as much protection against IEDs, which cause 70 percent of all U.S. casualties in Iraq.

Armored Humvees were "the best we had," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "Now we have something better, and we're going to get that to the field as best we can."

No Marines had been killed in the 300 attacks on Marine MRAPs in Anbar province, USA Today reported last month. But earlier this month, two Army soldiers were killed when a bomb struck their MRAP in Iraq.

Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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