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Battlefield mules…

Shaun Connors looks at the role of ultra lightweight vehicles in supporting dismounted forces

The idea of air-transportable/droppable ultra lightweight vehicles that provide transport and logistic support to parachute troops and/or infantry in isolated areas, or indeed simply just troops that operate in extreme conditions, certainly isn’t a new one. From the start of World War Two German paratroopers had the Kettenkrad half-tracked motorcycle at their disposal, and from experiences of jungle fighting, by the end of that conflict the British were experimenting with the Jungle Airportable Buggy (JAB), a 4x4, that while complex and ultimately unsuccessful, bears more than a passing a resemblance to the modern All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) - or quad bike, a product that is finding increasing favour with the world’s armed forces.

Post-war the British Army continued its flirtation with ultra lightweights, notable failures including 1957’s 350kg Hunting Percival Harrier. Ultimately it would be the first Gulf War before anything resembling a true ultra lightweight would be used in anger by Her Majesty’s forces, and during that conflict UK Special Forces are understood to have used a small quantity of commercially sourced ATVs. And while successful, little notice was initially taken of this fact. By early 2003 British Commandos in Afghanistan had received a small quantity of ATVs, their purpose to alleviate the difficulties of carrying, in the rarefied air of higher altitudes, the large amount of kit modern soldiers deploy with. They were an immediate success and a UOR (Urgent Operational Requirement) for over 100 additional machines, initially for use in Iraq, soon followed.

Polaris is thus far the only company to offer a genuinely militarised ATV, with Polish Special Forces being among its operators. © G. Holdanowicz

Polaris is thus far the only company to offer a genuinely militarised ATV, with
Polish Special Forces being among its operators. © G. Holdanowicz

The mainstream Army quickly discovered the utility/workhorse value of the ATV and a follow-on UOR for 250 machines is in the process of being met. UK forces are receiving a fleet of Yamaha Grizzly 450 ATVs complete with purpose designed trailers. In service these will be used for all manner of roles including reconnaissance, resupply and even casualty evacuation.

Other armed forces quickly joined the rush to adopt ATVs for a wide variety of roles on homeland security and deployed operations, a snapshot selection of confirmed users including Argentina, Australia (SF), Czech Republic (SF), Lithuania (SF), Mexico (inc. SF), New Zealand, Poland (inc. SF) Portugal, Singapore and the US.

With Special Forces being an enthusiastic user of the type, information is not always freely available, however the ATV has proven to be adaptable and well-suited to current military scenarios that often see soldiers operating in extreme terrain conditions, while being required to carry increasingly heavy and sophisticated weapons and powerhungry communication systems.

Poland’s forces operate Arctic Cat, Honda and Polaris ATVs, and to further enhance the mobility of these have procured track conversion kits for Polaris machines, while a flotation kit has been developed for Honda machines. Some users even arm their ATVs, an example being Czech machines, some of which mount 30mm AGLs.

ATVs are also finding favour with armed forces that traditionally operate in difficult homeland terrain, and Mexico’s Marine Infantry are about to bolster a 26 machine fleet with a further 83 machines.

The largest user of ATVs is unsurprisingly US armed forces. Figures are not currently available, but pre OEF the US Army operated around 1,000 assorted ATVs. However, in one single $10.3 million order, in 2004 SOCOM (Special Operations COMmand) ordered 700 Polaris 4x4 and 6x6 ATVs. Most other branches of US armed forces, with the apparent exception of the Marines, now operate assorted ATVs, many of these being procured through individual units’ operational budgets.

Most branches of US armed forces, with the apparent exception of the Marines, now operate assorted ATVs such as the John Deere M-GATOR shown here, many of these being procured through individual units’ operational budgets. © DoD

Most branches of US armed forces, with the apparent exception of the Marines,
now operate assorted ATVs such as the John Deere M-GATOR shown here,
many of these being procured through individual units’ operational budgets. © DoD

Polaris is thus far the only company to offer a genuinely militarised ATV, the probable reason for this being simply that military sales represent a mere fraction of the global commercial ATV market. Militarisation of the Polaris Sportsman 700 ATV results in increased payload, flexibility and durability. However, and with the noted exception of the Sportsman 6x6 which is fitted with a rear cargo body/platform, the payload limit of an average commercially-based ATVs plus operator, is somewhat less than the relatively low 275kg of the Polaris 700 MV.

For users requiring greater payload, and according to the manufacturer, a number of other advantages over modified/militarised commercial ATVs, All Terrain Vehicle Corporation offers the Prowler. Prowler is a purposedesigned machine that while having a similar overall dimensional footprint to a 475kg ATV of the 700 MV type, is faster, seats two (side by side), carries more and is claimed to be both more stable and manoeuvrable.

Unlike a traditional ATV on which the rider straddles a fuel tank and controls the machine with motorbike-type handlebars, on Prowler the conventionally seated operator controls conventional rack and pinion steering with a wheel. An initial 25 Prowlers were supplied to assorted US forces from 2003 for evaluation, and by May 2008 over 125 machines had been sold to US and other armed forces, the largest user to date being the UAE which is receiving over 100 machines.

Currently the main ATV issue for armed forces is fuel. Based on commercial products, ATVs traditionally use petrol (gasoline) engines, and this conflicts with NATO’s single battlefield fuel policy (JP8). A diesel/JP8 compatible Prowler has been touted, but the problems of producing a machine of equal extreme performance within the same size/weight envelope should not be overlooked.

Development work on diesel ATVs has been done, much of this in the UK by Roush Technologies who prototyped Polaris, and later Arctic Cat machines. US manufacturer Arctic Cat was the first to take up the serial production mantle, with diesel-powered Arctic Cat ATVs now available. Other ATV manufacturers are known to be looking at diesel-power, and military sales are sure to follow. The UK MoD opted for petrol-powered machines to meet their most recent UOR as while it is their long-term aspiration to operate a JP8 compatible fleet, the diesel-powered product was not considered mature enough for current operational scenarios.

Roush Technologies has also developed Harewood, a 6x6 ultra lightweight machine to meet a very specific UK MoD requirement. Harewood is a single-seat relatively lowspeed machine that is constructed of specialist lightweight materials, as with a payload of 1-tonne it was required to be transportable as an underslung load by a Lynx battlefield helicopter. Roush is currently developing a twoseat convoy-speed capable version of the machine for more mainstream ‘battlefield mule’ applications.

Light vehicles affectionately bracketed as battlefield mules have, of course, been around for many years, with possibly the best known of these being the US Army’s M274 Mule, 11,240 of which were produced from 1956. By the early 1980s, and most likely based on a decision made by somebody that had never moved from behind a desk, the M274 was replaced (theoretically…) by the HMMWV…

When genuine conflict arrived again in Afghanistan, the soldier on the ground quickly realised the HMMWV, while a lot of things, was certainly no battlefield mule. The answer to the problem however was not found in the usual high-tech development project, but in the John Deere MGator. M-Gator is essentially a slightly militarised version of the Gator, a machine of a type the groundskeeper at your local golf course might use.

But be careful before you mock… because at around $10,000 a throw (commercially) these (literally) throw away machines may be a tad flimsy, but they’ve carved themselves a niche with US armed forces, the Army alone operating around 4,500 examples, and all delivered since 1999/2000. With a payload of around 700kg, the two-seat M-Gator may not be able to top 20mph, but beyond roles you might expect of such a machine, when flown in by helicopter with ground troops it has a unique ability to follow along in virtually all terrain conditions while lugging kit the soldiers themselves would rather be relieved of handling.

Others, including the Canadians, have bought Gators although few if any use them as widely as US armed forces. Gator has a competitor though, with JCB of the UK offering a militarised version of the recently introduced Groundhog. Belgium is the launch customer for Groundhog, having ordered 38 machines that will be used for a variety of roles with both homeland and deployed troops.

Machines with the capability of Gator/Groundhog etc are, of course, not a new idea, but it is simply that until OEF/OIF came along most armed forces saw little need for such machines. A small number of armed forces of course had continuing requirements for such machines, most employing what are in effect little more than a motorised flat platform, albeit a purpose-designed (and expensive…) motorised flat platform. And while not a comprehensive list, users of such machines have included Argentina, France, Italy, Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and Tunisia.

Argentina, France, Spain and Tunisia all procured the air-droppable LOHR Fardier FL500/501, a 500kg payload 4x4 platform based on Citroen automotives. French vehicles were replaced by the 1,350kg unladen Jeep-like Auverland A3F, however Argentina has, and Spain and Tunisia are believed to have, retained theirs. Spain’s armed forces use EINSA and Fresia 4x4 designs, while Italy’s armed forces - mainly mountain troops - have used a variety of types including a number of tricycle machines. Dutch airmobile troops use the 900kg payload VLA 4x4.

South African armed forces used the Jakkals, a small purpose-designed vehicle that resembled a downsized Jeep. This was recently replaced by the Gecko, a small amphibious bathtub-like design constructed of high density polyethylene. Based on the commercial Argocat, Gecko is a skid-steer 8x8 machine sporting high-volume, low-pressure tyres, a unique and unexpected benefit of which is providing Gecko with virtual immunity to antipersonnel mine blast…

For the future, while so-called replacements for HMMWV-type vehicles grow ever bigger in size and the humble foot soldier is required to carry ever more kit, the so-called mechanical mule look set to become a regular, and not occasional feature, on the modern battlefield.

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