New Armored Vehicle on Path to Approval

After completing a final array of tests and exercises now under way at Fort Polk, La., the Stryker is expected to be certified as ready for service this month, reaching what the military calls ''initial operating capability,'' Colonel Grisoli said.

Although it could enter the service at that time, the Stryker will undergo further review by senior officers at the Army's Forces Command for a final round of improvements before it would be sent into a combat zone.

That process could take ''weeks or months,'' Colonel Grisoli said. Army officers said that among the improvements likely to be ordered for the Stryker were a layer of add-on armor near the wheel well.

The certification of the Stryker vehicle would be an unusual victory for Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the departing Army chief of staff, who first put the Army on a path of transformation in an October 1999 speech.

It is rare in Pentagon history for a major new weapons program -- and a new military fighting organization, in this case the Stryker brigade -- to be proposed, developed, built and then achieve initial operating capability within the four-year term of a service chief.

The Stryker was not ready for combat in the Iraq war, but Army officers said it would have found a valuable role on the battlefield. Only Kuwait allowed heavy armored forces to enter Iraq from its territory, so mobile ground forces, including Rangers, airborne troops and Special Operations Forces, battled Iraqis in the west and north, but with a minimum of armor to back them up.

The Stryker could have been flown into Iraqi airfields to support those ground forces when it became clear that tanks would not travel overland to those fronts, officers said.

One Stryker can be hauled aboard a C-130, the smaller workhorse of the Air Force cargo fleet, designed to land on short, unimproved forward airstrips. Army officers concede that the add-on armor to protect the vehicle would have to be carried separately.

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Three Strykers can be carried on the larger C-17, which can haul only one Abrams tank.

The Stryker has its critics, and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, has written of his doubts that the vehicle can meet all its requirements. This past winter, Mr. Gingrich sent e-mail messages to senior Pentagon officials describing his concerns.

The fourth of six proposed Stryker brigade combat teams, which include about 300 Strykers and about 3,500 troops, was included in the Pentagon budget proposal for the 2004 fiscal year. But a decision on money for the fifth and sixth brigades was deferred by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld until July, giving the Army and Pentagon civilians time to study the program.

One senior Pentagon official said it was possible that the money for the final two brigades, each costing about $1.5 billion, might be pumped back into the first three brigades to add more combat firepower. The Stryker comes in variants, including troop carriers, mobile gun systems and reconnaissance vehicles for a battlefield in which nuclear, chemical or biological weapons are a threat.

As the service moves toward deploying the Stryker, the Army's plans for its next-generation arsenal, called Future Combat System, passed a major milestone this week when approval was granted to proceed with development and testing.

The Army announced on Monday that the Defense Acquisition Board had approved the Future Combat System to move into design, development and demonstration, at a cost of $15 billion. The high-technology weapons system is envisioned to link ''18 manned and unmanned ground and aerial vehicles and sensors,'' an Army statement said.

A decision on whether to build the system is scheduled for 2008.

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