Special Operations: Rapidly Evolving Israeli ATVs


July 11, 2022: Israel is taking an innovative path to developing new tactical vehicles by backing Israeli race car driver and vehicle designer Ido Cohen’s designs for the ultimate off-road tactical vehicles. Since the late 1990s Cohen has been winning races and, like many successful race drivers, designing or at least modifying his own vehicles. In 2004 Cohen won the Dakar Rally, an annual long-distance (up to 10,000 kilometers) race that covers roads and lots of rural tracks that are similar to what special operations forces operate over much of the time. Cohen designed and built the Zibar, which resembled the American Humvee but was much more capable operating offroad. Cohen sold Zibars to customers seeking a unique off-road vehicle and made Zibar affordable by using off-shelf-components and his own experience to assemble an impressive vehicle that attracted more fans, and buyers and that led to Zibar Mk 2. This attracted more attention from the Israeli military, which was especially interested in Cohen’s ideas for smaller versions of the 2.8-ton Zibar. This was the 1.4-ton ZD, a cross-country vehicle that could carry its own weight in cargo or passengers and, on paper, outperformed the competition. Israeli special operations troops were familiar with Cohen’s Zibar and were eager to put the ZD to the test. They did and ZD performed as advertised. Also tested was a larger 2.7-ton ZMAG that shared characteristics with the ZD. Israel offered to buy $28 million worth (several dozen) of ZD and ZMAG vehicles for special operations units to use for operations units. The special operations troops were eager to put some of the ZR and ZMAG ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) to work. The ATVs were built by Cohen in partnership with state-owned vehicle manufacturer Elta. If ZD and ZMAG perform well in this second round of tests, with mass produced models, more will be purchased by the Israeli military and also offered for export. Israel currently uses 2,000 HMMWV (hummers) and hundreds of locally produced ATVs

Cohen’s designs would add to a long list of innovative Israeli tactical vehicles. A lot of this ATV work has been done in collaboration with the American military. Israel and U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have been using dune buggies and other small off-road vehicles for decades. Civilian use of these vehicles has been growing since the 1990s and in 2004 SOCOM decided to ask the manufacturers to come up with proposals for two militarized ATVs. One would be a 4x4 vehicle with a 400 kg (900 pound) payload and not weigh more than 890 kg (1,950 pounds). This would be used by Special Forces and commandos in the field. Top speed must be 88 kilometers an hour on a flat surface (72 when carrying a full load.) Range on internal fuel (on a flat surface) must be 160 kilometers. This assumes an average mission of 3.7 hours, covering 51 kilometers. It is assumed that the ATV would spend, on average 10 percent of its travel on good roads, 20 percent on secondary roads, 65 percent cross country and less than five percent in a shot up (and rubble strewn) urban area. SOCOM wants a multi-fuel engine (common in military vehicles these days.) The 6x6 vehicle must be able to haul 545 kg (1,200 pounds) and not weigh more than 1.045 kg (2,300 pounds). Range on internal fuel (on a flat surface) must be 80 kilometers.

Both vehicles must be able to handle a 60-degree slope (going up and coming down). The vehicles must have a roll over bar (similar to one used on a successful Israeli military ATV.) Both vehicles must be able to convert to tracks for travel in snow or very marshy terrain. SOCOM expects to buy up to 700 of each vehicle.

These military ATVs are developing the same way the hummer came about. Engineers at the jeep division of American Motors (that eventually became AM General) had been brainstorming new ideas for improved "jeep" class vehicles ever since World War II. The 1970s was also a time when the concept of cross-country vehicles for the masses was taking hold. When the army came to AM General with the hummer, it was not a bolt out of the blue. Army officers and vehicle engineers had been discussing new vehicle ideas for decades. In that sense, the HMMWV was evolutionary, not revolutionary (although a lot of ideas finally found their way into a production vehicle only with the actual design of the hummer.)

The army didn't go to AM General with a detailed spec for the hummer, but asked AM (and the automotive industry in general) to come up with a new tactical vehicle that was more mobile, and could carry more stuff, than the current tactical vehicles (Jeep, ¾-ton truck, Gamma-Goat and others.) The army issued an RFP (Request For Proposal) and got two competing designs. AM General's effort won hands down. The RFP approach is pretty typical. The armed forces do not try to design stuff, and the specs in the RFP are often kept pretty loose in order to let the contractors use their imaginations.

Israel was using the same approach, but had more firms manufacturing a larger variety of these vehicles. Both the U.S. and Israel put their ATVs to work in combat zones and that caused rapid evolution of their ATV designs. Fewer American special operations troops are in combat zones now while Israel is dealing with Iranian sponsored groups on their northern and southern borders as well as internally, like the Negev Desert in southern Israel which sees a lot of activity by smugglers, some of them armed. If the ZD and ZMAG vehicles perform well, more orders will follow so that some infantry and border patrol units can use the new ATV vehicles. Cohen designed these ATVs to be easier to operate and more adept at dealing with unexpectedly difficult terrain. The next generation of these vehicles is expected to have an autonomous mode, so they can transport supplies to troops in a combat zone and evacuate casualties. Both Israel and the U.S. have been working on this for a long time; the ZD and ZMAG seem to be good candidates for autonomous operation tests.


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