Where quad bikes are focussed on load hauling, motorcycles tend to a focus on speed. The military motorcycle has generally lost favour in most western forces but is it time to have another look?
This recent article from Sputnik News describes the value of motorcycles in the close urban terrain of Salma in Syria.
The use of motorcycles in a military context is hardly new, German and Russian forces in WWII made extensive use of them for reconnaissance, seeking out gaps and Israel suffered at the hands of motorcycle-borne forces. Conventional motorcycles were also used for convoy marshalling and despatch rider duties although both these tasks have been largely superseded by navigation and communications technology. The Welbike was also used to great effect by British parachute and glider forces and the US 101 Airborne Division used them in the 1991 Gulf War.
Obviously, they sacrifice protection for mobility but logistics requirements are tiny, especially fuel and this has seen them retained for special-forces use in Afghanistan.
The image below shows one in use in Afghanistan with an Australian soldier.
Lithuanian special-forces used motorcycle in Afghanistan, from Stars and Stripes magazine;
It appears the Lithuanian Special Forces retained their motorcycle capability, appearing in a NATO video only a short time ago.
The Finnish Army also use them in a similar role.
As can be seen from the brief section above there are a number of potential roles that might find a use for motorcycles. The first and most obvious is special or light role forces mobility, raiding and reconnaissance. Other might include despatch riding in the communications constrained/denied environment we are planning for, specialist reconnaissance activities for locating equipment and river crossing, sensor emplacement and for convoy management in Strike Brigades as they move over long distances.
One might also imagine lightweight motorcycles or even powered bicycles being used by mounted reconnaissance forces as a means of extending the observation area or simple moving forward a short distance unobserved. I mentioned it in the post on quad bikes that a past commenter on TD was a recce commander of many years and repeatedly made the point that a folding Brompton bicycle was extremely useful in some situations.
Trail bikes have been trialled extensively by the US and other forces, mostly before counter insurgency operations in the Middle East consigned them to specialist use only. As discussed above, risk aversion and operational reality meant they gave way to quads and protected vehicles but as more conventional operations look to be part of the future motorcycles may get back into service.
Some roles seem to endure.
Certainly, US airborne and special-forces have retained their interest in motorcycles, especially hybrid and two-wheel drive models.
These two videos are certainly worth a watch, especially the first one that explains the tactical pros and cons.
Each of these roles might require slightly different equipment.
Whilst these might be lacking somewhat in military street cred, as a means of moving a few miles quickly and quietly, maybe dismounted from another armoured vehicle, who knows.
The PESU offer an in-hub motor and is specially designed for off road use. The RadMini from Bad Bikes has a payload of 125kg and a maximum range of 50 miles on a single charge.
For even greater comedic potential, an electric scooter with large pneumatic wheels like the Jetson Breeze that can carry a 150kg payload 20 miles in near total silence that weighs less than 12kg with no chains to maintain, is an even more interesting proposal. I can’t imagine any takers to trial them though :)
One thing is certain, there is a great deal of research and development activity in the commercial sector with ranges, power density and costs plummeting.
Motorcycles fall broadly into two categories, folding/compact, and conventional.
The compact motorcycles can be more easily carried and deployed, especially by air. The modern version of the Excelsior Welbike is the DiBlasi Folding Moped, available for a couple of thousand dollars. With a small 50cc engine and a total weight of less than 30kg, top speed is 50kph. An electric version is also available.
The Honda Motocompo is no longer made, but still interesting.
The main issue with these is the simple fact they are not of much use off-road and could be perceived by the uncharitable as looking a bit silly.
To address this, Rokon produces all-wheel-drive motorcycles.
The tires can be filled with water or fuel, both wheels are powered and with the 200cc petrol engine can tow 900kg loads. 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.
In the same broad niche is the Russian internet sensation, the Taurus 2. Available as a self-build kit it is low power but light and very mobile, two versions exist. The videos look fun, and typically Russian!
The last video is from Daymak in Canada, the Beast D.
Conventional Trail Bikes
The British Army’s Harley Davidson built Armstrong MT350 Motorcycles are now long out of service, having been supplied over 7 years and in a quantity of approximately 1,700. Although some Kawasaki KLR’s and Honda XR/WR 250/400’s were purchased for specialist users from CJ Ball, they were not in widespread service.
Apart from some minor modification, weapons panniers and lighting, for example, a military trail bike is not that much different than a sports trail bike.
Where there has been some development is power, first with diesel engines and more lately, with hybrid engines. All-wheel drive motorcycles have also seen militarisation.
In 2011, the specialist US manufacturer Christini supplied 90 of their innovative 2 wheel drive motorcycles to the 82nd Airborne Division. The Christini All Wheel Drive technology does as it says, powering both wheels, from the Christini web page;
The AWD Military has been refined over a number of years, it now features foam filled tires, GPS, anti-stall automatic clutch and additional protection for vulnerable areas. A number of SF teams used them in Afghanistan where their light weight allows them to be carried on medium sized helicopters, providing a great deal of mobility for small teams. Christini have also partnered with Tactical Mobility Training.
Their latest model military model can be seen here
KTM and Kawasaki have also developed all-wheel-drive motorcycles with different approaches, hydraulic and mechanical connection 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.
Probably be the most useful feature for a military motorcycle, the ability to use diesel or JP8 fuel.
The US Marine Corps did have in service a number of diesel motorcycles from Hayes Diversified Technology, although I am not certain what their current status is. Interestingly, much of the technology was apparently developed at Royal Military College of science (Cranfield) that allows the motorcycle to achieve nearly 100mpg. The engine is fitted with a modified Kawasaki KLR650.
Its key feature is the ability use military/civilian diesel, Bio-Diesel (B20 or B100), JP4, JP5, JP8, AVTR and even Kerosene.
The next area of innovation is with hybrid propulsion systems that allow some measure of silent operation.
Zero Motorcycles have developed a military version of their all-electric motorcycle, the MX.
The low heat and noise signature provide obvious advantages but the equally obvious disadvantage is the range. The single power module is said to provide 170 miles range but on difficult terrain, this would be reduced. Additional modules can be carried but that just increases the burden although a module can be charged in an hour. Regenerative braking can extend the range and there is even an ‘app’ for managing the electronics.
Things have moved on since they were first introduced though, the technology is more reliable and provides additional endurance as battery power density improves. DARPA also awarded a technology development contract to Logos Technologies, for the Silent Hawk hybrid military motorcycle. The hybrid engine was also able to make use of diesel and JP8 fuel. The Logos designs have also progressed significantly since their inception.
Combining the engine technology from Logos with the AWD system from Christini would, of course, be ideal in many regards.
Whilst snowmobiles are commonly used for units that operate in extreme northern areas the basic design has been adapted by SandX for use in deserts as well, operating from -50 degrees to +60 degrees.
This looks like a lot more fun than wheels so I thought I would sneak it in. It is more or a less a tracked skateboard, designed and manufactured by BPG Werks. At just under 150kg and can travel in excess of 25mph over very challenging terrain, there is even a trailer.I think riding one looks like hard work, especially with any loads, but watch the videos.
Some of the equipment described above is clearly more applicable to a sports setting than a military one but I have included it simply to demonstrate the range available and that could be exploited.
The problem with the roles that might warrant a re-introduction but they tend to be niche and it is here that the two most significant problem lie; training and safety.
Motorcycles require significant training and regular use for ongoing safety, this will be difficult to achieve within a shrinking British Army that has many stresses on the training pipeline.
No doubt, there are roles that could be delivered with motorcycles, but is filling them worth the time, cost and inevitable accident rates
The British Army seems to think not.
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