The Past, Present, and Future of Military Motorcycles (and e-bikes)

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Do military motorcycles and e-bikes have a future in the British Army, a few thoughts on the subject.

A Short History of Military Motorcycles

The military connection to early motorcycles is quite interesting with a collection of recognisable names such as Royal Enfield and Birmingham Small Arms (BSA).

As designs matured from powered bicycles to more recognisable and mass-produced motorcycles in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, Pancho Villa was the first recognised user of motorcycles in a military context during the early Mexican Revolution period from 1911 onwards.

Pancho Villa realised that Indian motorcycles offered an ideal means of fast hit-and-run raids.

The US General, John Pershing also used motorcycles to deal with Pancho a few years later, without much success as it happened.

As this was happening, WWI also provided numerous examples of armies using motorcycles.

THE RACE TO THE SEA, SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 1914 (Q 53338) A British motorcycle dispatch rider takes a message in a Belgian village on 16 October 1914. His Douglas 2.75 horsepower solo motorcycle can be seen behind him. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205025690

Indian, Harley Davidson, and Triumph, all joined the war effort.

The Triumph Model H was widely seen as the first modern motorcycle and approximately thirty thousand were supplied.

Different nations had slightly different doctrinal approaches to using motorcycles with the British and Germans using them primarily (although not exclusively) for communication (despatch riders) and the US have a more expansive view of how they could be used, perhaps informed by their Mexico experiences.

THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE, MARCH-JULY 1918 (Q 8691) Battle of Hazebrouck. An artillery subaltern preparing motorcycle and sidecar in which he fixed a Lewis gun and covered the withdrawal of his artillery guns. Near Merris, 12 April 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205244521

As WWII came, designs of course matured, the famous shaft-driven BMW R75 (with an engine reverse-engineered from the Douglas Boxer), Soviet Dneper M-72 (a derivative of captured R-71s), the indestructible Harley Davidson WLA, and the lightweight 2-stroke Royal Enfield WD/RE, or ‘Flying Flea’, to name but a few examples.

M-72

These were used with and without sidecars, as weapons carriers or casualty carriers, for despatch riders, military police and paratroopers.

The Flying Flea

Bicycles were also used extensively by all parties.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH-WEST EUROPE 1944-45 (BU 216) Infantry with bicycles cross the River Seine across a pontoon bridge at Vernon, 27 August 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205206808

Post-war, and as communications equipment became more reliant and four-wheel drive vehicles more reliable, the military use of motorcycles was scaled back to mostly niche roles; special forces, base security, the odd reconnaissance application, and of course, the Vespa 150 TAP, or Bazooka Scooter.

The sidecar, trailer, and role-specific modifications had mostly given way to militarised civilian designs, such as the Armstrong/Harley Davidson MT350.

OPERATION TELIC: BRITISH FORCES IN IRAQ, 2003 (OP-TELIC 03-010-09-007) British forces prepare for operations in Kuwait, February 2003. Lance Corporal Curtin Coleman 28 from Lowestoft serving as a ground crewman and signaller with 663 Squadron 3 Regt Army Air Corps attached to 9 Regiment AAC, checking the ID of soldiers from The First Battalion The Parachute Regiment, who form part of 16 Air Assault Brigade as part of his additional duties of camp security. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205219063

Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq provided an opportunity for more use, but they were mostly limited in application.

A Special Forces Task Group (SFTG) member remounts his motorcycle after stopping to have a chat with a local Afghan soldier while on patrol near a Forward Operating Base (FOB).

Lithuanian special forces used motorcycles in Afghanistan, according to Stars and Stripes magazine;

The effectiveness of being lighter and faster wasn’t lost on Lithuanian Special Forces in Afghanistan’s rugged Zabul Province who, in 2007, parked their armored trucks and cowboyed-up on high-powered Yamaha and KTM motocross bikes to take the fight to the enemy. In a place where the roads are littered with improvised bombs the move seemed risky, but five years later the Lithuanians were still in the saddle. “These motorcycles were our lucky card,” said Maj. Liutauras, the Lithuanian commander in Zabul last summer, who, like many special operators, prefers to be identified only by his first name. The Lithuanians’ first patrols in armored vehicles, were repeatedly ambushed by insurgents on motorcycles, he said.

“They were able to reorganize and hit us hard again and again,” he said.

So the Special Forces adapted. They acquired motocross bikes and set up a training area in Lithuania to learn how to maneuver in rough terrain, jump and chase down skilled enemy riders.cThe Lithuanians’ speed on the motorcycles quickly allowed them to chase down enemy observers and prevent ambushes. And the motorcycles were too light to trigger many of the Taliban’s booby traps, often set with heavy springs that allow civilian traffic to pass unharmed but detonate when a heavy armored vehicle passes.

“We are risking a lot but this risk is measured,” Liutauras said, adding that his men often patrolled with just six bikes. “Our aggressiveness and our tempo and advance to contact is always a win.” Motorcycles are also popular with Afghan security forces, who even use them to drag rakes in search of roadside bombs — a technique not recommended by international troops. “Everyone rides motorcycles in Afghanistan,” Liutauras said. “The main thing is making them understand taking care of them.”

Liutauras said the motorcycles have protected Lithuanian forces in Afghanistan by enabling them to catch more Taliban bomb makers, meaning fewer bombs in their area of operations. The insurgents’ machines were clearly inferior to the Lithuanians’ 450cc to 550cc Japanese and Austrian bikes. However, the Taliban are very experienced riders, Liutauras said. “They have been living here for hundreds of years so they know all the routes and they can do 80 kmph (50 mph),” he said. “We can do 100 kmph (62 mph) or more but for us it is sometimes hard to catch them because they are light and we have body armor and weapons.”

The only casualties suffered by the Lithuanian motorcycle troops were broken arms and ribs from soldiers who have fallen off their bikes, Liutauras said. The Lithuanians also have passed on successful motorcycle tactics to Afghan troops, he said. “We want to train them to drive off road and give them the best expertise,” Liutauras said. “When ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces go, their fast moving motorcycles will be one of the most effective measures.

Years later, in Syria, cities proved to be an excellent environment for motorcycle operations.

This article from Sputnik News describes the value of motorcycles in the close urban terrain of Salma in Syria.

The way we fight has changed since the beginning of the war, and we have developed our offensive methods,” said Hany, a 25-year soldier with the Syrian Army. “Nowadays, we use motorbikes for their speed and mobility. My bike is harder to track and is too light to set off landmines.” “It was the use of more than 80 motorbikes in the last battle for the town that had the greatest impact in terms of winning in the final 72 hours,”

Continuing…

one field commander said. “The motorbikes allowed us to transfer the wounded, carry light ammunition and food and were used by fighters carrying machine guns and night vision binoculars. “We’ve come up with an advanced course on street fighting and guerilla warfare, and fighting on motorbikes may become a tactic that regular armies come to rely on. Eventually, they’ll become an essential piece of equipment, like a gun or ammunition”

Sidecars made a brief return, and so did their use as weapon carriers, although again, in limited numbers.

The Nordic and Baltic countries’ armed forces still make use of military motorcycles, and French special forces made extensive use in Mali.

More recently, Ukraine has made rather excellent use of a range of motorcycles and e-bikes in support of anti-tank ambushes, general reconnaissance and other similar roles.

Over a century later, Ukrainian forces came to the same conclusion as Pancho Villa except instead of riding a 1914 Indian and carrying a six-shooter, they went for Delfast Top e-bikes and NLAW rockets.

E-bikes are so hot right now, that everyone is using or hoping to use them, even the British Army, trialling the Stealth H-52 e-bike from Australia.

The UK Armed Forces, seen here demonstrating the Stealth H-52 electric bike as part of Project VIRTUO at Lulworth Range in the UK. Also seen slung over the shoulder with a Carl-Gustaf Mk4 Multi-Role Weapon System.

The history of military motorcycles seems to be cyclical, the technology changes, but conflict drives users to trade peacetime training and safety issues for wartime expedience.

Motorcycle and E-Bike Types

Motorcycles and e-bikes have experienced over a century of development, moving a long way from their heritage of simple powered bicycles.

Internal Combustion – Compact Motorcycles

Let’s start with a niche!

Whilst folding bicycles (manual or electric) are relatively common, folding or compact motorcycles are much less so.

Although the famous Honda Motocompo and Monkey Bikes are no longer in production, and the Excelsior Wellbike, is equally long gone, the modern-day successor is the Italian-made DiBlasio R7E folding scooter.

With a 50cc engine, it has a range of approximately 120km, a top speed of 45kph, and a weight of just under 32kg.

Honda China has resurrected the Motocompo concept and now markets an electric version called the e-Dax Minimoto.

Non-folding, but still compact, designs are produced in the USA by Coleman Powersports, with seven models in their mini bike range.

Larger than the DiBlasi models, they are heavier, with larger engines and improved performance.

Internal Combustion – Two-Wheel Drive Motorcycles

The low weight and high power-to-weight ratio of conventional motorcycles deliver a lot of mobility but where terrain accessibility is a key performance criterion, a small number of manufacturers make motorcycles where both wheels are driven.

Although several sports manufacturers now produce all-wheel driven motorcycles the two with a more military range are Christini and Rokon, each with different design approaches and uses.

The single-cylinder four-stroke Christini AWD Military has been refined over several years, including features such foam filled tires, GPS, anti-stall automatic clutch and additional protection for vulnerable areas.

The Rokon Ranger and Trail-Breaker both use a chain-driven front wheel and have been continually developed over a twenty-five-year period, with a wealth of accessories available. The tyres can be filled with water or fuel, both wheels are powered and with the 200cc petrol engine can tow 900kg loads.

There is also a longer wheelbase version available that has an extended load bed called the Mototractor and various sidecars and trailers can be used.

The King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau in Jordan has developed a specialist military version of the AB32 Rokon Desert Ranger and it is in service with Jordanian forces.

KTM and Kawasaki have also developed all-wheel-drive motorcycles with different approaches, and hydraulic and mechanical connections to the front wheel.

All-wheel drive cannot substitute for skill but it does help a skilled rider, although the extra weight might not be welcome.

Internal Combustion – Motocross and Enduro

The British Army’s Harley Davidson-built Armstrong MT350 Motorcycles are now long out of use, although some Kawasaki KLR and Honda XR/WR 250/400 were purchased from CJ Ball for specialist users, they were not used widely.

The Hayes Diversified Technologies M1030M1 was a modified Kawasaki KLR650 using technology developed at the Royal Military College of Science (Cranfield), its key feature was the ability to use military/civilian diesel, Bio-Diesel (B20 or B100), JP4, JP5, JP8, AVTR and even Kerosene.

These are no longer available.

Apart from some minor modifications, weapons panniers and lighting, for example, a military enduro bike is not that much different from a civilian enduro bike, they are widely available.

Take your pick from the likes of Kawasaki or KTM, to name two.

Electric – Folding Scooter or Bicycle

Taking their existing fossil fuel design as a starting point, DiBlasi has an electric version, the R-70 Electric.

Maximum speed is 40kpm with an average range of 50km.

Folding bicycles specifically for parachuting go back many years but in 1997, DARPA issued a contract to Montague in the US to develop the Tactical Electric No Signature (TENS) Mountain Bike.

This was developed further and similar models are available from Montague.

Although without the military heritage of the Paratrooper, folding e-bikes are popular with commuters and outdoor enthusiasts, where their compactness is the main feature.

From cheap Chinese imports to the premium folding Brompton, there is an enormous choice.

The British Army uses Makita 18v and 40v battery power tools.

Makita also makes an 18v folding e-bike and likely a 40v version.

The Mosphera Military E Vehicle is a robust and rugged electric scooter with a range of 150km.

Electric – Mountain Bikes

Moving up the power band from commuter and leisure electric bicycles, ‘no pedal assist’ models are again, widely available from vendors that have specific militarised models such as Trefecta, Sur Ron, Delfast, Eleek, Stealth, and Stalker Mad Bikes.

Some of the higher-performance models have payloads of approximately 150kg, with top speeds in excover.

The Stalker Mad Bike Carnivore in the image below, under test by the French armed forces, is typical of the type.

Or the Sur Ron Light Bee, being tested by 16 Air Assault Brigade.

The Light Bee weighs less than 50kg but has a range of more than 100km.

Technically not an electric mountain bike, the Zero MMX is in service with US forces

A U.S. Marine assigned to Reconnaissance Company, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, rides an MMX motorcycle en route to a raid site during the ground interoperability exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, July 25, 2023. The ground interoperability training integrates the Reconnaissance Company and supporting elements into a raid force to conduct land-based specialized limited-scale raids in preparation for more complex amphibious and maritime operations

It has a high top speed of 137kph but a shorter endurance of two hours.

Electric – Cargo Bikes

Generally used for urban logistics, cargo e-bikes sacrifice speed for carrying capacity, and in some cases, towing capacity.

At their simplest, they are just sturdier conventional designs fitted with racks and panniers. Longer wheelbase (or longtail) designs have longer rear load beds for low-density cargo.

The load beds can be optimised for standard Euro containers or bespoke loads.

Large logistics companies are increasingly investing in electric last-mile logistics including some smart intermodal containers and pallets.

Trailers are now frequently used, also for low-density loads.

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Use Cases

A bit of history, and a broad overview of the types available, but how can they used?

Self-Deployment and Operational Movement

For a force with access to more conventional transport, motorcycles are not an efficient means of self-deployment.

One particular exception to this rule that might be worth further examination.

As discussed in several previous posts, the increasing proliferation of advanced air defence systems means that parachuting will take place at increasing stand-off distances.

And if you only have a pair of size tens, that creates a lot of distance to cover.

Assuming a 5kph marching speed, the parachute landed force on foot could cover 20km in four hours and hold a potential area of 1,250 km2 under threat.

Now assume a speed of 40kph with a motorcycle, the distance rises to 160km and the area, 80,000 km2

20km is inside the engagement zone of all but the shortest-range systems, 160km is not.

Ideally, 16 Air Assault Brigade would have access to a vehicle air despatch platform that was integrated with the A400M, but it doesn’t, instead, it has either a single or double Container Delivery System (CDS) pallet.

Motorcycles are small and light enough to use the CDS method of air despatch (as are quad ATVs) so they remain a viable method of covering the increasing stand-off distances described above.

However, they are not particularly volumetrically efficient and would displace other high-value loads.

Like commuters, paratroopers should value compactness.

This is the niche occupied by folding designs

Getting onto a train with a folding Brompton or packing them into a CDS bag for air despatch from an A400M, is the same thing.

With a non-folding design, a single A400M could despatch 24 e-bikes or motorcycles, just not good enough. Swap to a Di Blasi R7 and a single CDS pallet can comfortably carry four, or 96 per A400M. Us a folding electric Brompton or Makita, and now a single A400M can air despatch 192 of them.

All would need a refuel or battery change to complete the 160km objective but it would be easy to envisage a mixed load of folding motorcycles or e-bikes with a handful of quad ATVs and trailers that would be used for personal equipment, stores, and additional fuel or batteries.

Get beyond the comedy factor of riding on a folding scooter that looks like something from the film Dumb and Dumber.

Accepting terrain limitations of these small devices results in a viable means of deployment over an operationally significant distance and allows them to arrive ready for aggro.

Tactical Roles

Examining tactical roles requires analysis of the unique characteristics of two-wheeled vehicles and then a secondary analysis that compares internal combustion to electric.

Compared to a quad bike ATV or larger vehicle, narrow paths, steep inclines, and a lot of urban terrain lend themselves well to the narrow footprint of a two-wheel vehicle.

Bicycles and motorbikes can be laid on the ground sideways and are therefore much easier to conceal and protect than a quad bike.

Small size, high speed, terrain accessibility and low signatures are their key advantages.

Cavalry, scouting, and reconnaissance roles all used horses, and there is no reason that in some cases, they could not exploit two-wheeled vehicles for the same.

Quickly checking if a road or bridge is accessible for a follow-on force, moving a sniper team into position, setting up observation points, checking arcs, and infiltration to create an anti-tank ambush are all good examples where the small size of two-wheeled vehicles in complex terrain begins to make sense.

In an age of complex and denied radio environments, despatch riding may yet make a comeback, and in addition to messages, collected video and imagery might be part of that message as well.

If safe, rapidly moving a medic with basic supplies to a casualty might provide options for casualty stabilisation.

Those roles are familiar, and each has historical precedent, they might be covered by quad ATVs or on foot today, so additional speed and mobility afforded by two wheels can only be advantageous.

Without falling into the trap of stating the obvious, no motorcycle can outrun a bullet, and speed versus protection is an important factor to consider.

They are not a replacement for a better-protected vehicle but an extension of that vehicle or an improvement on Shanks’ pony.

Pros and Cons

As always, there are pros and cons, and in this case, they rest on four issues.

The Problem of Payload

Most two-wheeled vehicles have limited payload beyond the rider.

Panniers and racks can help with distribution but the limitation remains.

Modern soldiers carry significant weight and what works for dismounted movement will not work when riding, a heavy Bergen or weapon carried on the rider’s back will significantly degrade control and safety.

This video from the Australian Army provides a good example of this.

Not even a personal weapon.

Cargo bikes address this by moving loads off the rider and placing them either lower down or in properly designed carriers or trailers.

Cargo bikes are for good road surfaces, ideal in an urban environment, but less so in a forest.

These limitations mean that without the support of a larger vehicle, or from a static location, applications will be payload limited, not necessarily a bad thing, but something to note.

Sidecars; might as well use a quad bike or side-by-side ATV.

Trailers, on the other hand, may well be applicable across a wide range of types and use cases.

Single wheel

Twin wheel

Some designs even have their own power assist like those from Carla Cargo

The Problem of Signature

In the survivability onion, not being seen is pretty high up in priority terms.

Despite their small visual signature, Internal combustion engines have significant heat signatures that are difficult to mask on a motorcycle.

Even with modern exhausts, noise can exceed 80dB/A at 100m, equivalent to a ringing telephone or alarm clock.

In comparison, the noise and heat signatures of electric motorcycles and e-bikes are significantly lower.

The thermal signature of an e-bike is not nothing, and the rider is of course another issue with detection, but it is much lower than with internal combustion.

Although relatively distinct, and somewhat depending on the drive mechanism, a typical e-bike emits approximately 60 dB/A when moving, the sound of a normal conversation.

At the same 100m as above, inaudible.

This is the single most important feature of electric bikes in tactical settings, it is what unlocks their potential.

The Problem of Endurance

Despite the significant improvement in electrical and battery technology, driven in no small part by the portable communications and power tool markets, batteries still have some way to go to overcome their energy density and recharge disadvantages.

In much of the publicity around 16 Air Assault Brigade trialling the Sur Ron Light Bee there was a comparison Royal Enfield WD/RE ‘Flying Flea’ from WWII.

Both weigh approximately 50kg, the 2023 design can travel 100km before needing a ‘refuel’, yet the relic from WWII  could easily do 240km.

Battery swapping or filling a small fuel tank will be of a similar duration, but a 7-litre tank of fuel for the WD/RE weighs 5kg and the Sur Ron 38Ah battery, 10kg.

It needs fuel to recharge (unless we are using solar), and over three hours to do it.

Power scavenging will help, regenerative breaking and more efficient drivetrains also, but there can be no doubt the range and endurance of e-bikes are a limiting factor.

This might prove to be of less significance when tactics and systems are developed, but we should not casually dismiss them.

The Problem of Skill

The simple fact is, with a smaller army, we cannot afford to be cavalier about training injuries and the world of safety legislation and its application has moved on.

Final Thoughts

There will always be niche roles for motorcycles (and e-bikes), special forces, and examples like this from @jeffreyvail

E-bikes especially, have significant potential, but wider adoption of both motorcycles and e-bikes needs to address some or all of these challenges.

Power

The power issue may be addressed by simply accepting the limitations of current technology and adapting tactics and procedures to meet them.

Is tethering to a ‘mothership’ that can provide spare batteries and charging facilities really that big of a deal?

Technology will improve, and power density will only get better.

It would be preferable to avoid yet another proprietary battery technology and insist on NATO standard radio batteries, or use Makita 18v LXT or 40v XGT batteries.

Vehicle Integration

If tethering to a vehicle makes sense, racks and integral charging facilities will have to be addressed.

If we can use wireless charging pads for power tools and mobile phones, why not e-bikes?

More complex vehicles will require more complex integration.

If we intend to use Boxer to carry dismounted reconnaissance cavalry troopers, the module should support either internal or external carriage of four or five e-bikes, together with spare wheels, batteries and a charging facility.

Logistics and Support

Please, in all the excitement, let’s not forget the pallets.

And by pallets, I mean logistics and support.

Horses for Courses

There is no single motorcycle or e-bike design that beats all others.

Something suitable for infiltration and an anti-tank ambush in a forest might not be suitable for small unit resupply in an urban environment, and no matter how cool they look, a folding moped is not an act of war!

As the industry develops different solutions, and governments bring them into better-defined regulatory and legal frameworks, these will also influence types and configurations.

Whether an e-bike has pedals or not will also be a key part of determining utility and training as this is likely to be a factor in future licencing.

Further Reading

Soviet Motorcycle Battalions

Swiss Army Bicycles

See you in the comments…

And no Marc, no I am not!

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