Special Operations: Cossack Revival


May 10, 2022: Ukraine has formed small mobile units of troops using ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) from a variety of manufacturers and usually armed with locally manufactured ATGMs ( anti-tank guided missiles). 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 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 21st 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 invading Ukraine 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 LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) consisting of small units (a dozen or so men) in wheeled vehicles modified for offroad 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 SAS (Special Air Service) commandos and the maritime version, the SBS (special boat service). 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. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) adopted the same policies. 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 sent out sniper teams mounted on quad bikes (four wheeled motorcycles) to seek out and kill al Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) 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 American firm Polaris in the 1980s and Israeli firm 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 been using civilian ATVs or the early British vehicles adapted for long range desert missions.

In the last few years Military ATVs have completed the evolution from civilian sport vehicles to military vehicles. For example, there is the appearance of Polaris MRZR ATVs equipped with high performance diesel engines that use military fuel (JP8). The U.S. military began adopting JP8 as a standard fuel for vehicles, aircraft, boats and generators in the 1980s. By 1990 the U.S. military adopted a form of aviation fuel, JP-8, 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, as was the case with ATVs, which SOCOM (Special Operations Command) 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 later Polaris ATVs, but became enormously popular with civilian and military users because they were designed for use in the most remote and undeveloped (no roads) areas. 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.

The latest version of the military favorite MRZR ATVs are 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 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, 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 (7.25 gallons) and range depends on what sort of terrain is being crossed. 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 people. The cargo configuration can carry over 400 kg (a thousand pounds) 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 (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 it can carry a maximum payload of 680kg (1,496 pounds).

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 max 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 (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 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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