Special operators gather around an up-armored Humvee. (Photo: DVIDS)
In May, images emerged of American commandos working with the Kurdish YPG rebel group in Syria. Among other things, the pictures highlighted an increasingly popular military method of transportation for special operators – the pickup truck.
Though the Pentagon has spent millions on purpose-built military trucks for its elite troops, U.S. Special Operations Command has a separate project specifically set up to buy more discreet, civilian-style vehicles. Based on readily available models, the top commando headquarters dubbed them "Non-Standard Commercial Vehicles," or NSCVs
"The NSCV provides … a low visibility vehicle capability to conduct operations in politically or operationally constrained permissive, semi-permissive or denied areas," U.S. Army Col. John Reim explained in a briefing on May 26 at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida. At that time, special operators had a combined fleet of more than 500 Fords, Nissans and Toyotas, with the bulk already deployed around the world.
Commonly referred to as "technicals," armed pickup trucks are generally associated with terrorists, insurgents and small military forces rather than American troops. When Chadian soldiers piled into these types of vehicles to fight Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddaffi in 1987, observers quickly dubbed the conflict the "Toyota War."
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001, the Pentagon has been working with contractors to develop and field these improved civilian vehicles. After arriving in Afghanistan in 2002, Army Special Forces soldiers were famously spotted riding a red Toyota Tacoma pickup on at least one occasion.
We don't know whether this or other similar trucks spotted in the field were part of the formal NSCV project. The Army's special operators only got their latest versions ready to go in September 2014, according to the one review of the ground combat branch's special operations plans.
In principle, the truck's main job is to allow elite troops to better blend in overseas. On top of that, the upgraded pickups and sport utility vehicles offer a number of distinct advantages over specially upgraded Humvees and mine-resistant MRAPs.
The most obvious benefit is that the NSCVs are simply smaller and lighter than their military cousins. A basic Toyota LandCruiser Model 78 weighs approximately 4,700 pounds, depending on year and starting configuration.
An up-armored Humvee can be over 11,000 pounds. In comparison, Oshkosh's "light" M-ATV mine-resistant vehicle is positively gargantuan at over 32,000 pounds.
One 1999 Army manual tells Special Forces troops to "carefully consider weight" when using modified Humvees. "An overloaded vehicle handles poorly, consumes fuel at a higher rate, lacks power, and will experience more maintenance problems."
The handbook specifically says the M1114 up-armored Humvee is a poor choice for desert operations because of its size. Heavy military vehicles can easily sink and become trapped in sand and other soft ground.
The Humvee's ever growing size and weight is why the U.S. Marine Corps purchased a number of Growler "internally transportable vehicles" that could squeeze inside the confines of their unique MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors. With similar concerns, the Army has become increasingly interested in smaller military trucks, such as the Jeep J8, for airborne and airmobile troops.
For special operators, even if the added armor and other gear doubled the weight of an NSCV, it wouldn't be half as big as the MRAP. With payload capacities up to 2,500 pounds, when riding in the plain looking trucks, elite troops don't necessarily have to leave behind critical gear. The pictures from Syria showed commandos in full kit on pickups armed with weapons like the .50 caliber M2 machine gun and 40-millimeter Mk 47 automatic grenade launcher.
In addition, the upgraded civilian trucks retain their relatively small dimensions. This means the pickup trucks can fit into the main cabin of the U.S. Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's MH-47 transport helicopters.
All of the modified commercial vehicles can easily drive on and off the Air Force Special Operations Command's specialized MC-130 cargo planes. These four-engine transports can airdrop unarmored versions, too.
So, unlikely MRAPs, elite troops can quickly get the trucks where ever they might be needed. It's no surprise that special operators brought NSCVs with them into the complex and hostile Syrian battlefield.
And the commercial starting pattern makes the trucks less of a hassle to maintain in remote areas. American special operations forces routinely work with friendly troops driving similar vehicles – which the Pentagon has often supplied in the first place.
With their NSCVs, the special operators can go where their allies can go and share many necessary supplies. In training exercises, the elite troops could share valuable lessons learned from their own experiences. The otherwise innocuous trucks present a less obvious target to terrorists or criminals when American commandos travel abroad.
Now, the Pentagon is looking to expand and extend the project. On July 18, the top commando headquarters hired the Battelle Memorial Institute to help develop new versions.
The $170 million contract covered modifications to Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger pickup trucks, as well as Toyota Land Cruiser sport utility vehicles, according to the original synopsis the Pentagon posted online in October 2015. Battelle had previous experience supplying the armored NSCVs to the Pentagon, according to Reim's presentation.
The work outlined in the latest contract included upgrades to the vehicles' suspensions, armor plating and bulletproof windows and space for communications gear, radio signal jammers and other military equipment. If the defense contractor keeps to the agreed upon schedule, Battelle should deliver the first 20 pickups and SUVs for tests by January 2016.
The Pentagon expects to buy just over 511 of the trucks over the course of their seven-year deal with Batelle. However, Reim's bullet points said that the contract could cover more than 550 vehicles, some 20 vehicles over what the officer said was needed to achieve "full operational capability."
These new vehicles are set to replace SOCOM's existing modified trucks over the next three to five years. Whatever happens, American commandos are prepared to fight their own "Toyota War" for years to come.