WASHINGTON — One of the most important US Army units in Europe — the Stryker-equipped 2nd Cavalry Regiment — is outgunned by its Russian counterparts, Army officials say, and needs a fast-track upgrade.
The Army staff in April approved a request from the unit's commander, Col. John Meyer, to fit a 30mm cannon on 81 of the infantry carriers, needed for it to engage similar units or light-armored vehicles. The Senate version of the defense authorization bill contains $371 million million in research and development funding for the Stryker lethality upgrade.
The 2nd Cavalry earlier this year completed a high-profile show-of-force convoy operation that maneuvered 120 vehicles across Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and back to its home base in Vilseck, Germany. The mission, called a Dragoon Ride, was one of a series of multilateral operations and exercises meant to reassure US allies in Europe in the wake of Russian aggression.
Meyer said the unit and its Strykers provide "operational mobility to maneuver across the alliance," a capability unavailable in infantry or armor brigades.
"An infantry or armor brigade combat team could not have done Dragoon Ride," he said. "We just reassured our allies by conducting a 2,200 km movement … and we could not have done that with a different type of formation."
The 30mm cannon requested for the Stryker is not meant to turn it into a tank or let it take on armored vehicles directly. It would, Meyer said, permit it to "destroy like-type vehicles," and clear the way for infantrymen on foot to use Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles on enemy armored vehicles.
Meyer described a plan to field the guns in 24 to 36 months as "realistic."
"I did intend for it to be urgent, and the time frame I looked at is the next two years," he said of the request.
Meyer made the remarks at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday that highlighted the partnerships and goodwill generated by the Dragoon Ride. He and other members of the unit were in Washington this week to meet with think tankers, members of Congress and senior Army officials.
The Army's acquisition strategy for the cannon is as yet undetermined, and it is an open question whether the service will open this to competition or strike a deal with General Dynamics Land Systems, the manufacturer of the Stryker.
Four years ago, General Dynamics demonstrated a Stryker with a 30mm gun for the Army, funded by internal research and development dollars, and the idea was revived amid the US reassurance initiative in Europe.
A senator from Ohio, where General Dynamics would likely conduct the work, in June introduced a successful amendment to the Senate version of the defense authorization bill which added R&D funds for Stryker lethality upgrade. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the Army had planned to up-gun the Stryker in 2020 "prior to the deteriorating situation in Europe," but the timeline now had to be fast-tracked to meet the threat.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., argued against the move, saying the program had not been vetted by the committee. It looked like an expensive multiyear commitment whose costs were unclear and availability "would not be instantaneous," he said. He said the estimated cost to up-gun Strykers was $3.8 million each.
Earlier this month, the Army requested that $9.8 million in 2015 funds be reprogrammed to outfit Strykers with the 30mm cannon. According to that request, the program would ramp up over the next two years, at $97.5 million in 2016 and $55 million in 2017. The first unit would be equipped in 27 months.
According to Jim Hasik, a Brent Scowcroft Center resident senior fellow for defense, the Stryker is outgunned by the Russian BMP-3 tracked transport vehicle, which has either a 100mm low velocity gun or 30mm auto-cannon, and many Russian BTR-80/82 wheeled infantry transporters, which have a 30mm auto-cannon.
A 30mm weapon for the Stryker would let it take on a Russian motorized rifle battalions and at least harass Russian T-72 tanks, he said.
"The alternative is a .50-cal and harsh language," Hasik quipped.
The gun the US Army is considering, according to Hasik, is the 30mm Bushmaster II from Orbital ATK, which "can destroy anything short of a heavy tank, and do considerable damage even to those."
US allies along the eastern frontier — Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia — have 30mm guns on their AMV-360s and Pandur-IIs, Hasik said. Sweden and Norway's CV90 have 40mm and 35mm guns, respectively. Slovakia's BMP-2s have 30mm guns.
"So it's a little embarrassing to have the only American mobile infantry in Europe relying on nothing between machine guns and anti-tank missiles," Hasik said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.