A short history of military motorcycles and their potential use in the modern British Army
Where quad bikes are focused on load-hauling, motorcycles tend to focus on speed. The military motorcycle has generally lost favour in most western forces but is it time to have another look?
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,” 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”
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motorcycles were also used for convoy marshalling and despatch rider duties although both these tasks have been largely superseded by navigation and communications technology.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 motorcycles in Afghanistan, from 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.
It appears the Lithuanian Special Forces retained their motorcycle capability, appearing in a NATO video only a short time ago.
Military Motorcycle Roles
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. Others 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 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.
Military Motorcycle Designs
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 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.
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.
Rokon has also recently introduced a single track trailer for the Ranger that can carry approximately 50kg
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 modificationa, weapons panniers and lighting, for example, a military trail bike is not that much different from 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 CHRISTINI AWD Military Edition is based on the CHRISTINI AWD 450 E or CHRISTINI AWD 450 DS, and has a multitude of add-on parts for added protection and longevity. It can be either off road specific or an on road-based bike with all the options to make it extra tough! Each bike is built to order and you can choose from the accessory parts shown on our specifications tab. The Military Edition is used by the Navy Seals and Special Forces groups overseas, as well as other branches of the military. It features a powerful liquid-cooled 450cc four-stroke engine, precisely tuned suspension, and an All Wheel Drive system that provides unbelievable traction, handling and stability.
The AWD Military has been refined over a number of years, it now features foam-filled tires, GPS, an anti-stall automatic clutch and additional protection for vulnerable areas.
A number of SF teams used them in Afghanistan where their lightweight 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 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. 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 sandy conditions, 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 for a bit of fun.
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 problems 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, but as electric bike technology improves, we might see that change.
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|Change Date||Change Record|
|11/09/2020||Updated with Logos designs|