Soldier in Afghanistan with a Christini motorcycle. (Photo: U.S. Army)
American special operators are known to have exacting standards for their weapons, vehicles, and other gear. When it comes to motorcycles, elite troops across the Pentagon have settled on one very specific type.
In July, officials with the U.S. Air Force's 1st Special Operations Wing approved a plan to buy more than 50 Christini Technologies all-wheel drive 450cc motorcycles for special tactics personnel. These air commandos work with other special operators to coordinate air drops and parachute jumps, help secure drop zones and call in air strikes.
"The Christini Technologies, Inc. AWD Motorcycle is the only AWD tactical motorcycle on the market," the flying branch's contracting officers explained in a so-called "justification for other than full and open competition" document. "There are no other tactical motorcycles on the market that provide the AWD function needed by Air Force Special Tactics."
Government agencies need to submit one of these reviews any time they want to give a contract to a specific company and avoid a lengthy bidding process. To back up their argument, the Air Force pointed out that Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces troops, and the super-secretive Joint Special Operations Command were all using the Christini bikes.
To the casual observer, the AWD 450 probably looks like any other high-end dirt bike. At a glance, the vehicle appears is something you might expect to see at the X Games or a Motocross rally.
Despite being derived from a Honda CRF 250, the motorcycle is far more rugged than its commercial competitors. The Christini model has a top speed of over 60 miles per hour on roads and a range of approximately 90 miles without needing to stop for gas.
The bikes feature rugged suspension and a modified seat for long missions rather than laps around a track. An enlarged, bullet resistant radiator helps keep the cycles working in extreme weather conditions. On top of that, they have run-flat tires and a headlight that can be switched to shine infrared light.
Most importantly, the engine powers both wheels. Since 1995, Christini has been cooking up and building patented all-wheel drive setups for both mountain bikes and motorcycles. The feature provides extra power in rough terrain and makes it easier for the rider to handle the motorcycle.
"We've … done testing that that shows our AWD bike is 30 percent less fatiguing than a standard bike," Steve Christini, the company's founder, told We Are The Mighty in an email. "You just don't get stuck … in anything."
Coupled with an anti-stall clutch, the AWD 450s can come to a sudden, complete stop and then get going again without the rider having to restart the motor. Even if the transmission system breaks, the motorcycle's rear wheel won't stop running. It's these elements that have made Christini's product the go-to choice for American special operations forces.
Troops around the world have used motorcycles as long as the vehicles have been in existence. In World War I, American soldiers started running messages between command posts on early Harley-Davidsons instead of horses.
Over the next century, soldiers, Marines, and airmen continually experimented with new roles for bikes. Relatively stock commercial types were the standard.
During the first Gulf War, American and British special operators hunted for Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles in the Iraqi desert in light trucks and on motorcycles. Some versions of the Desert Mobility Vehicle – a special Humvee Army Special Forces came up with – were set up to carry Desert Operations Motorcycles on the back. The "DOM" was a single-wheel drive Kawasaki KL type.
Kawasaki KL 250. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
With the lighter, more discreet vehicles, commandos could scout ahead to survey targets or possible areas to establish a temporary camp, according to one 1999 Army manual. The bikes could carry troops or small amounts of gear to and from forward bases and listening posts and ambush positions.
Weighing more than 350 pounds and able to make 60 miles per hour on roads, the Kawasakis served their purpose well enough. Unfortunately, as time went on, it became clear that these cycles were simply not tough enough the missions at hand.
When American special operations forces went to Afghanistan after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, they brought their Kawasaki KLXs with them. Less than two years later, commandos took the vehicles to Iraq as an international coalition toppled Hussein regime. We don't know for sure, but elite troops have likely used the motorcycles during other counter-terrorism missions, too.
"The Kawasaki KLX 250cc motorcycle proved to be marginally fit for the high-altitude, rugged terrain of Afghanistan," the Air Force pointed out in their justification. After nearly a decade of continuous combat operations, Army Special Forces were ready for a change.
In January 2010, the Army's Special Operations Research Support Element looked into the Christini design. The evaluators were thrilled with the bike.
"The AWD motorcycle is far superior to a conventional single wheel drive motorcycle," the office wrote in an unclassified review of the tests. "Increase in traction stabilizes the bike, reducing the fatigue on the operator while negotiating rough terrain and enables the bike to go places a standard motorcycle would not be able to go (eg: deep sand and steep inclines)."
"This vehicle enables the … operator, both motorcycle savvy and non-motorcyclist alike, to navigate off-road over difficult terrain," the Special Forces soldiers added.
As of July, Christini had been working with America's elite forces for more than four years, including sending 25 bikes to the SEALs, according to Christini. His company has also supplied motorcycles to special operators and regular troops in the U.K., Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Law enforcement agencies like the U.S. Border Patrol are getting their own batches.
The North Carolina bike maker has partnered with Tactical Mobility Training, another private training company also located in the state. Together with the Army's unique Asymmetric Warfare Group, Tactical Mobility Training helped developed a new concept of operations for motorcycle-mounted commandos specifically based around the AWD 450.
The special operations missions still focus largely on scouting ahead of larger formations and providing extra situational awareness of the battlefield and possible chokepoints. But commandos are now prepared to chase down or cut off fleeing terrorists and militants – nicknamed "squirt control" – during attacks on compounds or other sites, according to the Army's review.
But regardless of the actual operation, if you happen to spot a special operator on a motorcycle these days, chances are good it's a Christini.