A recent video by Task & Purpose tells the story of electric and hybrid motorcycles, and the major impact they’re having on warfare. Perhaps most importantly, they’re helping freedom-fighting underdogs prevail against large forces trying to oppress them in many cases. (article continues after video)
How Big Militaries Plan To Use These
When it comes to United States use of electrified motorcycles, it comes down to reconnaissance, screening, and direct action raids.
Over the last decade or so, most recon work has been done by drones. They don’t put humans in harm’s way, but they’ve only been effective in the desert environments many recent wars have been fought in. If a future war breaks out in the Pacific theater, U.S. forces would be in for more of a World War II experience, fighting under dense jungle cover that blocks the view from the sky. Motorcycles let people get in and out faster scouting out the terrain to let their commanders know what’s going on.
This would be done with “mobility teams”. These teams move in close faster using silent vehicles, and then sneak in the last few yards. Having people on the ground to use laser guidance (“painting”) allows for better use of ordinance when GPS gets jammed. So, reconnaissance isn’t just about seeing what’s going on, but being a valuable part of the fight.
Screening operations, on the other hand use this advanced mobility to put small, maneuverable forces ahead of a larger force, like tanks. These small forces can look out for things like anti-tank weapons and other things that are dangerous to the main force.
Things Big and Small Armies Both Do
Direct action raiding is a much more active role motorcycle and e-bike teams can take. For example, Ukrainian forces use fast e-bikes (that border on being motorcycles) to carry anti-tank missiles out into the fight. They can get in silently, wait for a target, and then get away quickly and silently.
This is a big moment in warfare.
Yes, in past wars, motorcycles were used extensively, especially when conditions bogged down larger forces and big vehicles. This was for more traditional roles in fighting forces, but in Vietnam, special forces started finding innovative ways to use motorcycles like today. Their low price also led to many small rebel forces adopting them, and this has also been going on for decades. But, their role shrank over time as encrypted communications led to less need for messengers and scouts of this kind.
But, things are changing again. Agility has become important, especially when fighting insurgent groups during the War on Terror. Military logistics (specifically their reliance on a diesel fuel supply chain) made it difficult for gas-powered off-the-shelf motorcycles to become part of the major force. So, they had to build a diesel bike, which was challenging and meant lower performance compared to gas. Even then, only few were made and Marines often had to buy locally-available bikes for many missions.
But, even then, there was a big problem: noise. Blasting across the landscape on a dirt bike can bring attention at the worst time. DARPA solved this problem by requesting hybrid bikes from the industry so that soldiers and marines could approach in a more stealthy manner. They’d run on gas until they got close, then switch to electric. This became the SilentHawk, which still had some range and usability issues.
Now, the U.S. military is going full electric with the Zero MMX. The military is finding that the lack of a transmission powertrain fluids, and needed liquid fuel has been extremely advantageous. Maintenance in bad environments is greatly simplified, and the bikes can get wet, get pulled up hills, and do many other things. Solar power can also be used in the field, meaning there are no supply lines to cut. Or, they can be charged with generators or from larger vehicles. Options are many.
There are still some downsides, though. Range is limited, especially in hilly and rough terrain. Payload is also limited, as the chassis has to carry batteries. This means carrying along solar panels are generators is a very limiting option at this point. Charging time is also a problem, and battery degradation tends to be worse in harsh conditions.
But, we’re only at the beginning of the story of military e-bikes. The technology will continue to improve, and tactics will also evolve to take advantage of the upsides while being less subject to the downsides.
Ukraine Shows Us How Simpler Bikes Handle Things
The video at the beginning mostly covers how e-bikes and motorcycles are being used in larger militaries, where they’re only part of a much bigger picture. What’s more fascinating is how they’re being used in asymmetrical warfare, or warfare between a small military force and a larger one.
On the surface, the old “you wouldn’t fight a military with jets and nukes with that AR-15” argument seems applicable. How can a small fighting force hope to use e-bikes against Putin’s tanks and jets? But, the real world is more complicated. A poor and simple military kept the most powerful military from controlling Afghanistan for almost two decades. The same was largely true in Iraq, and in Vietnam. Being smart with one’s resources and getting the most out of them is more important than an anatomy measuring contest writ large.
In other words, warfare is about a lot more than who has the biggest, most frightening weapons.
Sadly, there’s not a lot of video footage coming out of that conflict, probably because it’s ongoing. If I were a Ukrainian military leader, I’d tell the people who have been spotted riding around with anti-tank missiles, drones, and sniper rifles to keep their mouths shut. After all, Russians can go on YouTube and figure out why the tanks keep blowing up and people get shot out of the blue, so the less information they get, the better.
The most likely method being used is hit-and-run. Anti-tank missiles leave a trail in the air right back to where they were fired from, so anyone using them would need to get back on the bike fast to avoid return fire. The same would be true for non-suicide drones (the enemy can follow a drone back with binoculars if the pilot is close enough), and a sniper needs to get to a new position quickly to avoid being spotted.
Electric bikes and motorcycles make these “shoot and scoot” type tactics (that’s more of an artillery term, but uses the same thinking) a lot more effective. If you can tell the general direction an attack came from and then listen for a noisy motorcycle engine, the fighters are still in considerable danger.
But, if they can approach with quick stealth and retreat/move just as quietly, they might just live to fight another day. Even if they can’t deal a major blow, slowing a big military unit down and destroying their confidence/morale can do more damage than it might appear.
Featured image by Zero Motorcycles.
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