Special Operations: Special Vehicles Go Mainstream


August 21, 2020: In mid-2020 the New Zealand Army received its first six MRZR4 ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) for use in the most remote and undeveloped (no roads) parts of the country. MRZR4 and many similar vehicles, are military versions of commercial off-road vehicles.

The MRZR4 weighs 1.5 tons when loaded with nearly 700 kg of fuel, passengers, and cargo. MRZR4 has no doors, four seats, and a steel framework on top of which is usually left open for maximum visibility and acts as a roll-bar to protect passengers if there is an accident. The vehicle is optimized for cross country operations with four-wheel drive, suspension built for safe travel over broken terrain and an 88-horsepower engine providing a top speed of 96 kilometers an hour on flat terrain. Fuel capacity is 7.25 gallons (27.4 liters) and range depends on what sort of terrain is being crossed. Using simple tools, the seating and cargo carrying configuration of the MAZR4 can be quickly changed to seat up to six or just two with two litters in the back for badly injured people. The cargo configuration can carry over 400 kg (a thousand pounds) of anything in the flatbed behind the driver. MAZR4 DWT tires that are optimized for off-road use and resistant to damage. MRZR4 is 3.59 meters (140 inches) long, 1.52 meters wide and 1.87 meters-high. Collapsing the roll-bar cage reduces height to 1.52 meters (six feet). Empty weight is 853 kg (1,876 pounds) and can carry a maximum payload of 680kg (1,496 pounds).

There are over twenty nations buying 11 different models of the MRZR vehicles for military, paramilitary and police force. The New Zealand Army is a small force of about 5,000 troops who operate almost exclusively in New Zealand. Regularly called out for national disasters, the New Zealand troops often found themselves operating in rough terrain. While looking for new vehicles they realized that for nearly twenty years special operations troops, including those in neighboring Australia, had been using ATV vehicles in some of the most rugged terrain in the world. U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has been buying more and more ATVs since 2008, especially the MRZR4 and slightly smaller MRZR2. The MRZR2 is a 1.1-ton (loaded with nearly 450 kg of fuel, passengers, and cargo) 4x4 vehicle. It is 3 meters (9.1 feet) long. These ATVs have proved ideal for operations in remote areas, especially because ATVs could be brought in via helicopter, dangling from the cargo sling most military helicopters are equipped with.

The MAZR manufacturer (Polaris) pays attention to user feedback and reacts quickly. This was especially useful for special operations troops and often a matter of life and death. ATVs have proved useful, and popular, in Afghanistan, especially for special operations forces. There are many models in use, all of them militarized civilian vehicles. These vehicles are innovative both in original concept and how they are constantly modified and upgraded. For example, an important innovation was the use of non-pneumatic tires. The non-pneumatic tires are not solid like traditional tires but built with a web of plastic honeycomb and surrounded by a thick band of rubber that is very similar to the tread found on pneumatic tires. These tires can survive a hit by a 12.7mm (.50 caliber) bullet and keep going. They feel about the same as pneumatic tires, although some users report they are not as effective in mud or watery surfaces.

British special operations troops were the first to develop unique vehicles for commando missions in rough country and SOCOM has formed close ties with their British and (since 2001) NATO counterparts. That has led other NATO special operations troops to quickly adopt new items developed and validated by the Brits and yanks. Moslem nations that have worked with NATO special operations forces since 2001 have done likewise.

The ATVs have been so popular that many troops have bought them when they get back home and use them for cross-country trips (for camping, hunting, or just sightseeing). The U.S. Army has bought some of these ATVs for use by troops just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. It's the kind of high-excitement recreation that has been found to help the troops decompress after returning from a combat tour.

MAZR manufacturer Polaris also makes the DAGOR, a two-ton light truck that can carry 1.4 tons or nine troops. It can be carried inside a CH-47 or slung under a UH-60 helicopter. DAGOR can also be dropped via parachute and be ready to roll within two minutes of reaching the ground. Some are calling this a “21st century jeep”. Polaris entered a version of DAGOR in the recent U.S. Army competition to select who would build over 2,000 ISVs (Infantry Squad Vehicle). There were three finalists in the completion and Polaris lost out to a militarized version of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison. This vehicle was introduced in 2016 and is the culmination of two decades of vehicle modification by individual entrepreneurs as well as companies like GM. All this largely unnoticed work was recognized and merged by GM into their new 21st century off-road pickup trucks to give them many ATV features. Individuals and small firms modifying commercial vehicles for special uses is something that has been around for decades. Think of them as “vehicle hackers” and you have an accurate view of what is happening. The Chevrolet Bison was very much the right hack showing up at the right time for the ISV competition. Vehicle designers in GM saw the army ISV contract, looked at the Bison and it didn’t take long, at least on the computer design software, to turn the Bison into the GM ISV. Removing the commercial shell and the Bison became the ISV, with a modified diesel engine and a few tweaks to the suspension and other mechanical components.

The ZR2 Bison is a four-wheel drive 2.52-ton vehicle built to carry five passengers and 590 kg in the cargo bed behind the four-door passenger cab. To become the ISV, the Bison lost its passenger cab and cargo area along with air-conditioning, doors and so on. There is no conventional vehicle body on the ISV, it is an open configuration like a dune buggy with seats for an infantry squad (nine troops). The seats are minimalist compared to civilian vehicles and can be folded down to allow a two-man crew to transport over half a ton of cargo or prone casualties. Most Bisons have a 308 HP gasoline engine but an option is a 181 HP diesel. The ISV has a 186 HP turbo-diesel. The cross-country wheels and suspension of the Bison are largely intact. The existing Bison cross-country capability is one asset that was largely unchanged and allowed Bison to win the ISV competition.


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