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Don’t Blame the Tools

Stuart Koehl has an excellent piece up at the Weekly Standard on a Washington Post article that characterized the Army’s Stryker combat vehicle as a “kevlar coffin.” Koehl’s not an unmitigated supporter of the Stryker, but his main point is that criticism of the Stryker’s ability to protect infantry in Afghanistan is misinformed in ways both obvious and subtle.

The first and more obvious point is that the Post provides no information about the number of injuries and fatalities sustained by troops in Strykers as compared with  past alternatives, and appears to proceed on the assumption that every Stryker “lost” is a Stryker that has been totally destroyed instead of one sent to the shop. Without this, it’s hard to know just how well or poorly the Stryker is actually doing.

The second and more subtle point is that some of the destroyed Strykers hit IEDs that were as large as 2,000 pounds. At that size, even a main battle tank would not protect its occupants. As Koehl notes, if it becomes a pure race between the armor makers –- who  have to design vehicles that are actually useable –- and an undisturbed network of bomb makers with access to unlimited quantities of explosives, the bomb makers will win every time.

The U.S. has seen this kind of criticism before: it’s reminiscent of the up-armored Humvee “scandal” of 2004-05. As with that incident, the brief burst of criticism of the Stryker combines a bit of commonsense — yes, of course the U.S. and its allies should seek to provide their forces with ample quantities of the best equipment — with a lot of disguised criticism of the administration.

Now this administration deserves to be criticized. As Con Coughlin and Fraser Nelson point out in the latest Spectator, the Obama administration’s dithering isn’t just hurting the U.S. cause; it’s treating its allies — especially Britain – with “astonishing disregard.” But in the U.S., and especially in Britain, the criticism has tended to focus too much on equipment. In the U.S., it’s the Stryker and the Humvee; in Britain, it’s the British Army’s
shortage of helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles.

It’s certainly true that the British Army could use more of both. But as Koehl points out, “the solution to the IED problem is not technical, but rather tactical and operational.” In other words, since you can’t win the battle with the bomb makers by building an invulnerable vehicle, you have to win it by fighting a counterinsurgency campaign. If you control the ground, protect the people, and gather intelligence, you win not by beefing up your armor, but by making it impossible for the bomb makers to make and plant bombs.

Criticizing the supposed failures of the equipment is an easy way to make the correct point that the government is getting it wrong.  But it has a serious cost: it encourages administrations on both sides of the Atlantic to respond to the criticism as a short-term political issue simply by rush-ordering more equipment, while neglecting the more serious problem of how to fight the war effectively. By all means, criticize the Obama and Brown administrations on Afghanistan. but if the criticism is to serve anything more than a political purpose, it needs to proceed from a realization that even the best equipment can’t rescue bad strategy.


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