Special Operations: Specialized Combat Support Vehicles


January 16, 2024: Soon after Russia invaded in early 2022, Ukraine formed small mobile units of troops using All-Terrain Vehicles/ATVs from a variety of manufacturers and usually armed with locally manufactured Anti-Tank Guided Missiles/ATGMs. Some were armed with heavy machine-guns or automatic grenade launchers. Some of the ATVs were carrying captured Russian ATGMs. The ATGM systems mounted on the ATVs were the ones that were heavier and more cumbersome to carry on foot into combat. For that the Ukrainians preferred the more portable Western ATGMs. The ATVs were ideal for using heavier and less portable locally produced ATGMs.

These 21s-Century Cossacks are doing what the first Cossacks did 500 years ago, traveling light and using whatever weapons they could carry and use on foot or on horseback. The original Cossacks were most effective at raiding and restricting the movements and capabilities of a larger force. Cossacks would raid supply columns and force the enemy to use more troops for guard duty and larger reconnaissance patrols. Cossacks could weaken a larger force and reduce its offensive capabilities.

It’s not surprising that these modern Cossacks would emerge in Ukraine now, because this sort of speedy improvisation by a largely recent volunteer force of civilians is one reason the Russians have been losing. The Ukrainians know what they are fighting for while most of the Russian troops who initially invaded were unaware, they were in another country until hastily organized and armed Ukrainians began ambushing them with effective anti-tank weapons and superior tactics and communications. Russian troops are still unsure why they are invading Ukraine while the Ukrainians are defending themselves any way they can.

These neo-Cossacks, in the form of small, mobile motorized forces, were first developed by the British during World War II in North Africa. German and Italian forces established airfields and supply storage sites out in the desert that were lightly guarded because any ground force would be spotted from the air before it got near. To get around that Britain developed the Long Range Desert Group/LRDG consisting of small units with a dozen or so men in wheeled vehicles modified for off-road use in desert terrain. The troops were volunteers trained to use these vehicles and navigate in the desert. While raids on remote airfields and supply depots were the most dramatic operations, the most valuable role of the LRDG was collecting information on enemy strength, dispositions, and movements. This often involved monitoring enemy traffic on the coastal roads, which were the primary traffic route in North Africa. Out of this came the British Special Air Service/SAS commandos and the maritime version, the Special Boat Service/SBS. After World War II other nations based their special operations forces on the British model.

British special operations troops were the first to develop unique vehicles for commando missions in rough terrain and U.S. Special Operations Command/SOCOM adopted the same practice. SAS and SOCOM would use whatever new mobility tech that was available for missions and that’s how ATVs of all sorts were adapted when needed for operations in remote desert or mountain areas as were found in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

One SAS innovation was to send out sniper teams mounted on quad bikes (four wheeled motorcycles) to seek out and kill al Qaeda or ISIL terrorists in Iraq. The Quads were an early form of ATV that are still in use. SOCOM preferred ATMs based on dune buggies. Militarized versions of these dune buggies were developed by British firm Supacat and American firm Polaris in the 1980s, followed by the Israeli TomCar in the 1990s.

What the Americans and British special operations forces validated in combat led other NATO special operations troops to quickly adopt the new equipment and tactics. Moslem nations that worked with NATO special operations forces after 2001 did the same. Some of these troops were from Middle Eastern nations and had already been using civilian ATVs or the early British vehicles adapted for long range desert missions.

In the 2020s military ATVs completed the evolution from civilian sport vehicles to military vehicles. For example, in the 1990s there were the Polaris MRZR ATVs equipped with high performance diesel engines using military JP8 fuel. The U.S. military began using JP8, a form of aviation fuel, as a standard fuel for vehicles, aircraft, boats, and generators in the 1980s. By 1990 the U.S. military adopted JP8 as its standard fuel and all new engines had to be built or adapted to use it. This was cheaper than building multi-fuel engines which could adapt to a wide variety of fuels.

Some exceptions were allowed, such as ATVs which SOCOM was able to acquire over a decade ago because SOCOM was allowed to try new equipment of all sorts to accomplish their missions. The MRZR vehicles were military versions of civilian ATVs Polaris began introducing in the 1980s. Those were often called dune buggies, because they were able to operate effectively on beaches and sand dunes. When these vehicles were first adopted by special operations troops in the 1980s and 90s, they were heavier than later ATVs and less mobile than the later Polaris ATVs but became enormously popular with civilian and military users because they were designed for use in the most remote and undeveloped areas with no roads no roads. While this had obvious appeal for SOCOM, there were many civilians that worked in areas where there were few roads, including construction sites in remote areas and staff in large rural parks. Active duty and reserve military are often called on to assist during natural disasters, as well as operate in combat zones that lack roads or even trails. Noting SOCOMs’ success with ATVs, these regular troops and their commanders began requesting ATVs when surveyed about equipment that would increase mobility in combat zones. Hummer vehicles, adopted in the 1980s to replace the military jeep and light truck, were more mobile but could not match ATVs in the worst terrain. Once SOCOM got their JP8 ATVs, the rest of the military could easily get them as well.

In Britain, vehicle manufacturer Supacat supplied high mobility vehicles for industry and the military. This included a Special Forces patrol vehicle created by militarizing the civilian Wildcat off-road vehicle. The result is a vehicle similar to Supacat's own Jackal off-road patrol vehicle, but at half the price. However, the Wildcat does not have the anti-mine armor and general bullet-proofing.

Britain had already ordered several hundred Jackal armored patrol vehicles. These weighed 6.6 tons, which was less than half as much as the widely used armored Mine Resistant Armor Protected/MRAP trucks. The 4x4 Jackals do most of their traveling off road, thus avoiding most roadside bombs and mines. Jackal is basically a patrol vehicle, carrying up to five people. This vehicle is armored on the bottom to give protection from mines but is largely open up top. The vehicle mounts 12.7mm and 7.62mm machine-guns, as well as a 40mm automatic grenade launcher. The Supacat chassis has been around for a while and comes in 6x6 versions as well. It has excellent cross country capabilities. Top speed of the Jackal is 80 kilometers an hour, and the vehicle normally carries 3-4 troops. These were initially bought for the SAS commandos, who were quite pleased with the vehicle. The British Army began ordering Jackals for Afghanistan service in 2008.

Jackals are fairly compact vehicles, only 5.4 meters long with one meter ground clearance. Top speed is 130 kilometers an hour on roads. Jackals are usually armed with 12.7mm and 7.62mm machine-guns. About half the Jackals are Jackal 2, which seats four, has better overhead protection and better resistance to roadside bombs. The 2.5 ton Wildcat is a much lighter vehicle but has the same cross-country mobility.

The Americans developed the MRZR ATVs equipped with a more powerful turbo-diesel engine that uses JP8. These vehicles are updates of MRZR4 that weigh 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 which is usually left open for maximum visibility, and acts as a rollbar to protect passengers if there is an accident. The vehicle is optimized for cross country operations with four-wheel drive, a 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 27.4 liters and range depends on what sort of terrain the vehicle is operating on. Using simple tools, the seating and cargo carrying configuration of the MRZR4 can be quickly changed to seat up to six or just two with two litters in the back for badly injured passengers. The cargo configuration can carry over 400 kg of anything in the flatbed behind the driver. MRZR4 tires are optimized for off-road use and later models’ tires were even more resistant to damage. MRZR4 is 3.59 meters long, 1.52 meters wide and 1.87 meters high. Collapsing the roll-bar cage reduces height to 1.52 meters. Empty weight is 853 kg, and it can carry a maximum payload of 680 kg.

The latest update of MRZR4 is called MRZR Alpha and includes a turbo-diesel engine plus several changes to the chassis that made it easier to reconfigure and provide a more stable ride. The new engine increased maximum payload by 33 percent, and has more torque for getting through deep sand or other terrain other vehicles would get stuck in. Another user request included the ability to produce more electric power for recharging or powering the growing number of portable electronic devices used by the military.

Military forces in over twenty nations have been buying more than a dozen different models of MRZR vehicles for military, paramilitary and police force operations. The MRZR4 and slightly smaller MRZR2 have been around since 2008 and receive periodic upgrades based on user feedback. The smaller MRZR2 is a 1.1-ton 4x4 vehicle that can carry nearly 450 kg of fuel, passengers, and cargo. It is 3 meters 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 or carried inside larger helicopters as well as the new tilt-wing aircraft.

The MRZR manufacturer always paid attention to user civilian feedback and reacted quickly to the needs of military users. 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 ATVs. 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 are 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.

These ATVs have been so popular that many troops bought them when they got back home and used them for cross-country trips, camping, hunting, or just sightseeing. The U.S. Army bought some for use by troops just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan because it was found that high-excitement recreation, initially video games, helped the troops decompress after returning from a combat tour.


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