Fort Lewis, Washington
What‘s big and green, weighs 20 tons, runs 60 mph, and has serious attitude? No, it’s not a rampaging dinosaur, although you might be forgiven for making that analogy if you were to see a Stryker combat vehicle bearing down on you with all guns blazing.
The Stryker medium armored vehicle is the new mainstay of the army’s high tech Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCT). Named after two unrelated medal of honor infantrymen who were killed in action in World War II and the Viet Nam War, the SBCT’s can rapidly deploy anywhere in the world within 96 hours, and a full division in 120 hours. U.S.A.F. C-130s, C-5 and C-17 cargo planes do the hauling. In short, this vehicle provides rapid response for the new face of 21st century warfare.
Fully integrated into the modern, newly reorganized U.S. Army division, the Stryker Brigade Combat teams comprise 4,000-5,000 soldiers. A Brigade combat team in World War Two would secure a lodgment of 50 kilometers square. With the exceptional mobility of the Stryker vehicles they can now secure and area three times that size. However these days, most of their work comprises patrolling in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade Combat Teams were the first in the U.S. Army to be equipped with these vehicles—about 300 per brigade. The U.S. Army’s seven Stryker Brigade Combat teams have received more than 2,100 Stryker vehicles in the past 6 years at a cost of $4 billion from GM General Dynamics Land Systems Defense Group. I’ve driven down to Fort Lewis, Washington, from Seattle to meet some of the Stryker communications specialists and have a look at these high-tech machines because I’ve heard interesting things about their communications systems. I’m visiting the 3rd Stryker (Arrowhead) Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division (3/2 SBCT) communications Headquarters at Fort Lewis.
As I park and walk across to the Stryker communications workshop, I can’t help but notice Stryker vehicles quietly gliding past me every few minutes along the Ft. Lewis road, the young olive drab battle dressed commanders standing tall out of their turret. These soldiers, most in their 20’s, try to maintain a stern military demeanor—obviously a façade for commanding officers—but they can’t quite suppress that youthful look of sheer joy that comes with goosing a $2.5 million light armored vehicle just a tad over the base’s speed limit when no one is looking. When they drop the façade and smile, they’re more like happy Labradors sticking their heads out of a car window on a hot summer day, than commanders of the elite Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
But the Stryker vehicle commanders know their training is serious business—lives are at stake. A glance through the Special Historical Edition of the Arrowhead Brigade annual of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team is sobering—death has struck 69 of their compatriots while the brigade has served two tours in Iraq. The three communications specialists I interview, Major Glenn Mellor, Sergeant First Class Fortenberry, and Sergeant Baldwin, have all lost good friends there.
Stryker vehicles are not tanks—far from it, in fact. They weigh in between 19 and 26 tons, about a third of the weight of the M1A1 Abrams Tank, the U.S. Army’s current Main Battle Tank. Designed to be a fast, lightweight, highly mobile infantry platform, the Stryker BCT packs more punch than a standard light unit.
And these green machines with top speed listed as 60 mph. One communications specialist tells me he was in one that flew 80 mph downhill in Iraq—not bad for a glorified diesel caterpillar tractor power train. Riding on 8 giant rubber wheels, the behemoth Stryker stands 10 feet high, 9.5 feet wide, 24 feet long, and carries up to 11 soldiers and their weapons. Known for its quiet approach, whether on the road or in urban streets, the Stryker’s adaptability has made it the U.S. Army’s preferred vehicle.
But, after spending an hour or two talking with the Stryker comms specialists the incredible technological sophistication of its comms and weapons systems impress me over all the vehicle’s cool gadgets and weapons. Stryker Brigade communications are so high tech they’re scary. “Where”, I wonder, “did this technology come from?”
The comms systems used by the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams have changed the face of the modern battlefield. Stryker Brigades see more of the battlespace on their equipment from the ground than any other unit in theater. I can’t help comparing the primitive World War Two tank communications with the Stryker’s high tech systems that border on science fiction. For a moment, while I’m interviewing the comms specialists, I seriously wonder if they’re working on bypassing electronic and digital signals to develop some sort of telepathy link between the commanders—perhaps one of the new classified systems like the Trojan Spirit that they can’t tell me about?
SBCT Signals Architecture
The Stryker Brigade Combat Team signals architecture is a self-contained structure, built on Wide Area and Local Area Network protocols. This enables individual Stryker battalions to deploy anywhere and stay in touch with Brigade central command at all times. The Force XXI Battlefield Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) hardware/software system—713 per brigade—links satellites, sensors, communications devices, vehicles, aircraft and weapons in a digital network.
On small TV screens inside every Stryker vehicle, blue icons on the digital map of the FBCB2 tactical system, for example, show the location of friendly vehicles, reducing the possibility of friendly fire. Red icons show the location of enemy forces on the battlefield. This graphic display saves the soldiers from having to collect and interpret verbal reports. Soldiers communicate with commanders and one another via on screen e-mail while on patrol.
The Stryker Variants
This sort of sophistication comes at a price—the basic Stryker vehicle costs 1.5 million, and up to 2.5 million dollars with upgrades and variant specialties. While Infantry Carrier Vehicles and Mobile Gun Systems are the most common variants, Stryker vehicles have been adapted as mortar carriers, reconnaissance vehicles, anti-tank guided missile vehicles, fire-support vehicles, engineer support vehicles, medical evacuation vehicles, Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) reconnaissance vehicles, self-propelled 105 mm Howitzer vehicles, and command-and-control vehicles.
Comms Training for the Stryker Signals Personnel
All this technology, as you can imagine, requires serious training. And these guys are highly trained. Very highly trained. Considered the most sophisticated in the world the Stryker vehicle comms systems are described by one weapons expert as “arguably the best-resourced, best-trained and most technically proficient brigade in the history of the Army”.
How long does it take to train the Stryker Brigade soldiers to operate the multi-faceted Stryker comms systems? Soldiers are pre-selected for one of the dozens of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) areas based on score results from tests taken before basic training. The tests examine the candidates’ general knowledge and familiarity with electronics. Then, after 8 weeks of basic training, they face up to 20 weeks of Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in specialty areas including computer classes, where they learn how all radios in the Stryker net are tied into the computers and signals system. More sophisticated systems such as satellite training can take up to one year.
But that’s only the beginning of their training. Once through their MOS/AIT classes they enter classes of 5 to15 soldiers, taught by the squad leaders, on the basic operation of the Stryker FM system. What happens, I ask, if their radio specialist in a Stryker vehicle is incapacitated through enemy action? Not a problem. “Every soldier can load and operate the FM short-range radio system. We’re always doing some kind of training”, Sergeant Baldwin tells me. “Most of the officers and NCO’s will do most of their training in the Mission Support Training Facility (MSTF)”.
The Operations Center in the MSTF permits the Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade officers who are waiting to deploy to Iraq, to take a “right seat ride”—in other words watch actual missions in Iraq in real time. They can talk by videoconference to the soldiers in action, use emails or phones.
Four Stryker driver simulation stations (much like flight simulators) in the MSTF enable the drivers to practice their trade, while the rest of the squad can simulate being on convoy, practicing communicating with each other. The solders I’m interviewing call this immersion practice “good experience”. Other drills are practiced using the joint conflict and Tactical Simulations (JCATS), where the soldiers learn how to react to unexpected situations.
Each brigade has 735 Enhanced Position Locating and Reporting Systems (EPLRS) to distribute near real-time tactical information by radio. Coordinated by a Network Control Station, EPLRS is a jam-resistant, computer-controlled network that locates and reports the troops’ positions. It stays secure by hopping across frequencies, and spreads its spectrum waveform in UHF band. The Enhanced Network Manager (ENM) keeps the EPLRS signals in time with each other.
But wait, there’s more. The SBCT’s Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), a combat net radio, transmits voice and data between ground and airborne forces sometimes used by the Stryker Brigade to contact aircraft when they find themselves in a hotspot. They come in two forms: mounted in the Strykers or in backpack form for the brigade. The SBCT has 1200 of these units, and they use 25 kHz channels in VHF military radio band from 30 to 88 MHz.
Personal Radio Communications
Each Stryker Brigade has 78 Personal Radio Communications (PRC) “Man Packs”, small man portable units used on reconnaissance patrols (119 model), supply convoys, for combat support, and to establish satellite communications (117 model) with supporting units and higher HQ should the need arise for air cover or extraction. These PRCs can operate on the SINCGARS net and do not depend on line-of-sight.
The AN/PRC-148 is a highly capable “ruggedized” Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio (MBITR) that weighs less than 2 pounds. Each SBCT has 450 of these units designed to operate with the SINCGARS system and all other Stryker PRCs on the ground. Also available, but not used much are 44 Near Term Digital short-range radios.
Relay/Transmission Vehicles/Brigade Subscriber Nodes
Something’s got to keep all of these signals moving and in synch—this falls on the Brigade’s 15 Relay/Transmission Vehicles, now a special Stryker variant. It can operate three different FM frequencies on three separate networks. Two AN/TYC-25 Brigade Subscriber Nodes (BSN) provide switching, routing transmission and network management and security services within one single shelter. One BSN supports the brigade main command, the other supports the brigade support battalion.
With similar capabilities to the Brigade Subscriber Nodes, the Network Operations Center Vehicle provides the hub that controls everything including piped out signals to satellites, under the SMART T and WIN T systems--these systems are beyond the purview of this article.
Land Warrior System
Then there’s the Land Warrior system—a wearable computer system that allows the soldiers in the fields to communicate via the Internet. They can track their Stryker vehicle location and their comrades, via a drop down eyepiece mounted on their helmet. Relatively new, the Land Warrior system is still being integrated into the Stryker array.
In old black and white World War II photos you’ll often see an infantryman walking behind a tank, talking into an old telephone headset connected by wire to the tank commander inside. It was considered sophisticated if World War II tanks could communicate by radio with each other—and even then mostly one-way, so the tank commanders couldn’t talk back to their CO. Sometimes infantrymen had to bang on the side of the tank to get the attention of the tank crew inside—back then they did it the hard way, or did without.
World War II veterans would stare in disbelief at the sophistication of the Stryker Brigade’s multiple layers of inter vehicle, Brigade, and Army command and control communications systems.
The Stryker communications systems clearly allow for every contingency and emergency. They’re designed so that all Stryker commanders know the location of vehicles and personnel in real time—not to mention being able to rustle up all sorts of air and ground support at the drop of a hat. Above all, I leave with a healthy respect for the knowledge, training, and commitment of Major Mellor, Sergeant First Class Fortenberry and Sergeant Baldwin—these are fine young men.
I’m stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam as I exit Fort Lewis. Several Blackhawk helicopters buzz the length of the road at about 50 meters, practicing strafing missions on the stationary line of cars below. I wonder if the Stryker guys have called up the chopper pilots, asking them to give me a farewell demonstration. The zooming choppers remind me of pterodactyls looking for prey, and my mind flashes back to the Stryker vehicles—prehistoric dinosaurs they are not.
Named after Meriwether Lewis, leader of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Northwest from 1804-1806, it was founded during World War One as Camp Lewis. Since becoming a permanent Army post in 1927, it’s served as a major training and personnel centre for many divisions during World War Two, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower served at Fort Lewis from November 1940 to June 1941, as chief of staff of the IX Army corps.
The fort is enormous. Consider these facts: 86,721 acres, 115 live fire ammunition ranges, 29,660 military personnel, 10,900 civilian employees, a Reservist and National Guard component of 15,000, and 50,000 personnel from other government agencies. There are a staggering 691 miles of roads, restaurants, stores, banks, taxis, a bus service, schools, libraries, a hospital, and recreational facilities. It is in effect, a mid-size city.