Special Operations: Convergence In The ATV Zone


October 3, 2021: Military ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) have completed the evolution from civilian sport vehicles to military vehicles with the introduction of 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, 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 an American firm (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. The 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, 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.

British special operations troops were the first to develop unique vehicles for commando missions in rough country and SOCOM formed close ties with their British and (since 2001) NATO counterparts. That led other NATO special operations troops to quickly adopt new items developed and validated by the British and American forces. 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.

The 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 of these ATVs 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.

As Polaris expanded its line of ATVs, commercial car manufacturers were taking note and borrowing new ATV technologies and concepts for their cars and trucks. When Polaris went head-to-head with an automobile firm in 2019 the outcome was unexpected. MRZR 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 by parachute and be ready to roll within two minutes of reaching the ground. Some called DAGOR a “21st century jeep”. Polaris entered a version of DAGOR in the 2019 U.S. Army competition to select who would build over 2,000 ISVs (Infantry Squad Vehicle). There were three finalists in the competition and Polaris lost out to a militarized version of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison light truck. 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 was 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 stretcher 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. Polaris still has most of the military and commercial ATV market and there are now several foreign firms, especially in China, producing similar vehicles.


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