By: Warren Gray
“If everything seems under control,
you’re just not going fast enough.”
— Mario Andretti, Formula One racing champion.
In July 1941, Major (later, Lieutenant Colonel Sir) David Stirling, a Scotsman serving in the British Army in Cairo, Egypt, created “L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade,” which soon became known as the Special Air Service, or SAS, Britain’s first official, commando force, to operate behind enemy lines in the North African Campaign. One of their early tactics was to send out long-range, desert patrols in American-made, stripped-down, tan-painted, Willys MB Jeeps, to engage in high-speed, hit-and-run attacks against the German Afrika Korps in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. These were really the very first military “dune buggies,” striking fear into the hearts of the Germans.
So, let’s begin by defining the term, “military dune buggy,” exactly as the SAS intended it to be, a high-speed, fairly-lightweight, highly-maneuverable, and usually (but not always) armed vehicle capable of swiftly traversing rugged terrain, especially deserts, with more reliance on speed, stealth, and surprise than on safety and armor plating.
The world-famous Willys MB Jeep entered service in 1941, weighing in at a very modest 2,337 pounds, with a 2.2-liter, L234 “Go-Devil,” 60-horsepower engine and four-wheel-drive, propelling it to 65 miles per hour, with an operational range of 300 miles. The 1966-to-1968 TV series, “The Rat Patrol,” dramatically emphasized just how effective these tiny, Jeep patrols could be, although the show was criticized in the British Commonwealth for using a cast of three Americans and just one British soldier, when, in reality, these highly-successful, hit-and-run patrols were entirely British.
The SAS Jeeps were usually stripped of all non-essential items, including the windshield assembly and the rear seats, for simplicity and light weight, and then, three Vickers K machine guns in .303-caliber were installed, as were spare tires and extra fuel cans, for increasing their range across the vast deserts. Later, as the process evolved, AN/M2 heavy, aircraft machine guns in .50-caliber were installed on pedestal mounts in the rear for longer-range, harder-hitting firepower. The AN/M2 aircraft gun was 27-percent lighter, and fired 78-percent faster, than the ordinary, M2HB infantry machine gun, and every pound counted on these patrols. Also, at high speeds, the faster-firing guns increased their hit probability against German vehicles.
After the Normandy Invasion of June 6, 1944, British SAS Jeep patrols in France continued to be heavily-armed, and their American allies began to copy some of these roving, hit-and-run, reconnaissance tactics for the first time. But once the war was over, the interesting concept fell largely into disuse.
Now let’s fast-forward to 1978, when this author was lucky enough to receive an action-packed ride in a stripped-down, 1962 Volkswagen Beetle with a rear-mounted, 1,200cc air-cooled engine, producing a whopping 36 horsepower! (It actually felt like more than enough at the time, though.) The entire vehicle body had been removed, leaving only the basic chassis, engine, wheels, tires, four seats, and a steering wheel and gear shifter. A tubular frame had been crudely welded on, with just enough bare, sheet metal panels to protect the occupants from low-hanging tree branches and other hazards. Otherwise, it was incredibly simple, lightweight, inexpensive, highly-maneuverable, and a tremendous amount of fun.
As luck would have it, the United States Army decided just five years later, in 1983, that America needed some military dune buggies for its High-Technology Test-Bed (HTTB) concept, with the 9th Infantry Division (“Old Reliables”) at Fort Lewis, Washington. As a result, three Light Attack Battalions were created, and were equipped with a total of 120 brand-new, Fast-Attack Vehicles (FAVs) from Chenowth Racing Products of southern California.
The original Chenowth FAV was a sleek, flashy, high-speed, camouflaged dune buggy with a 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower, air-cooled, Volkswagen racing engine, but in rear-wheel-drive (4x2) configuration only. Still, it could reach 80 miles per hour on pavement (60 mph off-road), travel 210 miles unrefueled, and literally leap over sand dunes in the desert. It had a three-man crew, and was very heavily-armed, with weapon mounts for the front-seat passenger and rear gunner. Its weapons complement could include one M2HB heavy machine gun in the raised, rear position, and one M60D/E3 infantry machine gun for the passenger, or one Mk. 19 40mm grenade launcher in either location. It was also capable of using the all-new, Boeing ASP-30 30mm cannon, which was never officially adopted into active service, with only 23 examples built.
However, conventionally-minded, armor officers within the Army continued to resist this radical, new, flashy (perhaps too flashy for the regular Army) concept of swift vehicles with absolutely no armor plating for protection, and the entire, eight-year existence of the FAV experiment was fraught with controversy, until the 9th Infantry Division (9th ID) was finally disbanded (again) in December 1991, at the very end of the lengthy, Cold War.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the British develop their two-man, Longline LSV-10 Light Strike Vehicle, and the similar, Wessex Saker Mk. I and Mk. II LSVs, weighing only 1,918 pounds, with a 1.6-liter, Volkswagen engine, or 2.0-liter turbodiesel. They carried M2HBheavy machine guns and lighter, 7.62mm guns, and had a top speed of 84 miles per hour, but the Longline and Saker vehicles were both retired in the mid-1990s.
1990 and 1991 saw the advent of desert warfare, once again, for the U.S. Armed Forces, with Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm being fought against the invading, Iraqi Army from allied bases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, to liberate Kuwait. As the 9th ID began to slowly divest itself of its Chenowth FAVs over those two years, many were refurbished and upgraded by the company to “Scorpion” Desert Patrol Vehicle (DPV) configuration, not really very different from the original FAV (and still rear-wheel-drive only), but now incorporating new families of weapons, including the FN M240B medium machine gun in 7.62mm, and the FN M249 Minimi light machine gun in 5.56mm, along with a pair of M136/AT-4 Viper 84mm anti-tank missiles strapped to the sides of the roof frame, for manual removal and firing by the vehicle crew.
These Chenowth DPVs, mostly painted black, even in the desert, saw active service in Kuwait with the 5th Special Forces Group of the U.S. Army, and with SEAL Team Three of the U.S. Navy, being very favorably regarded by our special operations forces in a desert environment. But once again, after the First Gulf War, most of the remaining DPVs were placed into long-term storage by SEAL Team Three in Coronado, California, where their tires dry-rotted, and the engine oil became thick and gooey.
Ten years later, the devastating, terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York City, at the Pentagon in Virginia, and the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania, once again raised the ugly specter of fighting Islamic terrorists and insurgents in the dusty, arid environment of Afghanistan, and the surviving, Chenowth DPVs were again refurbished and upgraded, by now in much smaller numbers, to Light Strike Vehicle (LSV) configuration.
This was an improved DPV, redesigned to be internally-transportable in CH-47 Chinook helicopters, CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, and C-130H four-engine, transport aircraft. It was stillrear-wheel-drive only, with a range of 310 miles, and the same weapons capability, but adding the BGM-71F TOW anti-tank missile as an option. It has been purchased by Bangladesh, Greece, Kuwait, Mexico, Oman, Portugal, and Spain.
The latest evolution of the Chenowth, military dune buggy series is the Advanced, Light Strike Vehicle (ALSV), first introduced in 1996, and incorporating a 160-horsepower, Porsche engine, power steering, and four-wheel-drive (4x4) for the very first time, in a 3,500-pound vehicle. It was also internally-transportable to the battlefield, and gained great popularity among the Navy SEALs and U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, and later, during the Iraq War of 2003 to 2011. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have both purchased this model.
Beginning in 2007, however, the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps were transitioning to the new, CV/MV-22BOsprey tiltrotor aircraft to replace many large helicopters, but it was originally designed in 1989 to accommodate the small, narrow (64.3-inches wide) M151A2 Jeep in service at the time, and endless production delays and controversy had delayed its introduction by an astounding 18 years, by which time all military vehicles had grown tremendously in size and weight, and the venerable, old Jeep was no longer in use.
So, the various service branches had to rethink the entire concept of aerial-delivered, military dune buggies, retaining some ALSVs in service, but now forced to introduce newer, lighter, narrower designs that could actually fit inside the small Osprey.
Then, beginning in 2009, the U.S. Marine Corps slowly adopted the new, M1161 Growler (Internally-Transportable, Light Strike Vehicle, or ITV-LSV), with a 2.8-liter, turbodiesel engine producing 132 horsepower, four-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-steering, but it’s a bulky 4,537 pounds and holds five men, replacing the older, M151A2Jeep and Mercedes G290 GDT Interim Fast Attack Vehicle (IFAV), and still just a bit too large for a real dune buggy, but it fits inside the MV-22B Osprey. The Marines purchased 600 of them, and a further 1,000 have been exported to friendly nations.
The Growler carries the M2HBheavy machine gun, or faster-firing GAU-21/A, and the M240G infantry machine gun, has a long range of 408 miles, and can attain a speed of 85 miles per hour on pavement. Still, it’s a little bulkier than desired for certain missions, and more of a patrol vehicle than a true, fast-attacker, which has led to the very latest trend in American, military dune buggies.
Since 2008, in fact, the U.S. Armed Forces have acquired at least 1,700 militarized versions of the Polaris RZR (“Razor”) off-road vehicle, in two-seat and four-seat configurations, and with either gasoline-powered or diesel engines. These include the RZR 800 Light, Tactical, All-Terrain Vehicle (LTATV) for U.S. Special Forces since 2008, weighing only 945 pounds, with a 52-horsepower engine, 1,500 MRZR-2 (Military RZR) and MRZR-4 (1,937 pounds, still less than a Willys Jeep) gasoline-powered vehicles for the U.S. Special Operations Command since 2015, with all-wheel-drive and an 875cc, 88-horsepower engine, and 144 MRZR-D2 and D4 turbodiesel models for the U.S. Marine Corps, also called the Utility Task Vehicle (UTV), since 2016.
These Polaris MRZR vehicles are small, portable, lightweight, inexpensive at $30 to $36 thousand each, will fit inside the Osprey aircraft, and can attain 62 miles per hour off-road. They can be armed with one M240G/L/P machine gun, or an M249 light machine gun, or a 40mm grenade launcher. The Canadian Army has received 36 examples of the MRZR-D4, and the MRZR series is currently used by the armed forces of more than 25 countries.
The U.S. Special Operations Command has also utilized the small, Kawasaki Teryx KRF750 4x4 Light, Tactical, All-Terrain Vehicle (LTATV) since 2012, mounting an M240L/P machine gun just outside the passenger door opening.
This inevitably leads to the realization that military dune buggies are not an exclusively-American phenomenon. Because they are small, lightweight, relatively simple, and inexpensive, many nations can afford to either purchase or produce them.
The People’s Republic of China, for example, has the Norinco Fast Attack Vehicle (possibly the LYT-2021), in service with paratrooper units since 2001. It’s rear-wheel-drive only, holds four men, has a speed of over 60 miles per hour, and mounts one Type 67-2, 7.62mm machine gun in the front, and one 23-2K single-barrel, 23x115mm cannon, or Type 85, 12.7mm, heavy machine gun overhead.
Iran, in particular, prefers light, maneuverable, fast-attack vehicles, such as the Safir (“Ambassador”) jeeps, Sepehr (“Sky”) tactical vehicles, Aras-2 (named for the Aras River in Iran and Turkey) military vehicles (a clone of the American Humvee, in pickup-truck style), Ranger light-attack vehicles, and Samandar (“Salamander”) I and II series fast-attack vehicles, unlicensed copies of America’s Chenowth Light Strike Vehicle. Any of these dune-buggy-style vehicles may be armed with Iranian-made, Gatling guns in 7.62mm (the six-barrel Akhgar [“Spark”]), .50-caliber (the six-barrel Moharram [“Forbidden”]), or even a 23mm (the three-barrel Asefeh[“Tornado”]) cannon.
Israel drives the nimble Tomcar TM (4x2) and TX (4x4) since 1991, as well as the AIL Storm I, II, and III series (Jeep Wrangler copy), with an FN MAG 7.62mm machine gun, and the newer, AIL Desert Raider 6x6 off-road vehicle. Neighboring Jordan has speedy Chenowth ALSVs, and the indigenously-manufactured, Desert Iris 4x4 vehicle since 2005, which uses a 2.8-liter, 100-horsepower, Toyota engine, has a range of 372 miles, and can mount an M2HB heavy machine gun, or BGM-71F TOW anti-tank missile launcher.
France manufactures the ACMAT Light Tactical Vehicle (ALTV) Torpedo 4x4 vehicle since 2009, with a 190-horsepower, 2.5-liter, turbodiesel engine, a top speed of 99 miles per hour, and a range of up to 870 miles, with three mounts for 7.62mm machine guns, and one mount for a .50-caliber weapon. They have constructed more than 1,000 of these vehicles, and sold them to 24 countries so far. The French firm of Nexter offers pintle-mounted, 20mm cannon upgrades in the form of their MG151/20 (20x82mm) or CP 20 or P20 (20x102mm, using the basic, M621 gun) cannon that are not much larger or heavier than an M2HB machine gun, but provide greater, harder-hitting firepower.
The French also have the superb, 4x4, Panhard VAP (Véhicule d’Action dans la Profondeur, or “Deep-Penetration Vehicle”) since 2006 for special operations raids, also called the Desert Patrol Vehicle, and painted desert tan, which has a Steyr (Austrian) diesel engine, and usually carries a Nexter P20, 20mm cannon and anti-tank missiles.
The United Kingdom currently employs stripped-down versions of the Land Rover XD (“eXtra Duty”) Wolf (with 111 horsepower, and a range of 317 miles) and Land Rover WMIK (“Weapons-Mount Installation Kit”) Defender 110, frequently with an L111A1 (M2HB) heavy machine gun mounted overhead, an L7A2 7.62mm General-Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) firing forward, and Milan anti-tank missiles.
Singapore Technologies Kinetics (ST Kinetics) makes the excellent, 4x4, Spider Light Strike Vehicle (LSV) Mk. II since 2013, with a turbocharged, Peugeot 2.8-liter, 130-horsepower engine and speed of 68 miles per hour. It can mount two FN MAG infantry machine guns, and either a 40mm grenade launcher, CIS-50 heavy machine gun, or a two-shot, Spike (Israeli-made) anti-tank missle launcher.
This is certainly not an all-inclusive list, and many other countries possess similar vehicles. Bolivia has the “Kojak,” Cuba has the “War Buggy,” and Peru has the “VAT,” for example.
Russian Special Forces have used armed variants of the tiny, UAZ-3132 Gusar (“Hussar”) and UAZ-3150 Shalun (“Joker”) jeeps, as well as stripped-down, armed models of the Lada Niva (“Crop Field”) jeep, and the new, three-ton, armored, Eskadron (“Squadron”) fast-attack vehicle (capable of 80 miles per hour), in service with Russian SpetsNaz commandos and paratrooper forces.
Since 2018, Russia has also operated the new, Chechenauto Chaborz (“Bear Wolf”) M-3 (three-man) and M-6 (six-man) military buggies in 4x2 configuration, with Lada Priora engines, a speed of 80 miles per hour, and a top-mounted, PKP 7.62mm, infantry machine gun. Their wary, NATO-member, Lithuanian Special Forces neighbors drive armed, flat black, Arctic Cat Wildcat 1000i all-terrain vehicles with FN MAG medium machine guns in front of the passenger seats.
Given the recent history of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism wars in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and other arid, desert environments, the need for thousands of high-speed, armed, military vehicles capable of traversing rugged terrain on reconnaissance and direct-action missions is certain to continue for many years.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.