For more than 100 years, troops have been zipping around combat zones on motorcycles. From early uses as transports for messengers plying the scarred landscape of Flanders in World War I, to steeds shuttling reconnaissance troops maneuvering for a low-profile look-see in Europe to today's special operations troops using specially-designed all-terrain dirt bikes in search of America's enemies, the military uses motorcycles for its specialized missions more than ever.
In fact, one of the first times U.S. troops used motorcycles in combat was when Gen. George "Blackjack" Pershing ordered Harley-Davidson J Series bikes to hunt down Poncho Villa in Mexico in 1914.
With their relatively light weight, high speed and endurance and energy efficiency, military motorcycles were proven time and again to be able to get troops to an objective when no other vehicle could — and get them out fast when things go sideways.
In the Great War, motorcycles were often used as transport for messengers and for medics to carry the wounded. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
These stealthy steeds were used in some novel ways during World War I, with the U.S. military fielding nearly 100,000 to troops fighting in Europe. These bikes were loaded with machine guns for attacking enemy trenches, deployed with gurneys to transport wounded and used as messenger and reconnaissance vehicles to pass vital information and spy on enemy formations.
World War II saw even more use for military motorcycles, with Harley Davidson dominating the market for U.S. troops. This time vehicle technology had progressed so much that the Jeep Willy eventually eclipsed the motorcycle for go-anywhere transport and the two-wheelers were used primarily for message delivery and scouting.
By the Cold War, communications technology and armored designs made tooling around the battlefield on a motorcycle a dicey proposition. But that's when America's secret warriors started casting their gaze toward the technology for low-viz operations.
An Air Force Special Tactics airman surveys a remote landing strip in his offroad motorcycle. (Photo from U.S. Air Force)
It's well known that the Marine Corps had a unit of motorcycle troops for decades and that Air Force Special Tactics troops like Combat Controller Teams used the two-wheelers for remote landing strip surveys and long-range transport. The commandos (and Marines) tended toward offroad or Enduro-style bikes, with all-terrain capability and durable suspensions.
Today's special operators are emphasizing hybrid technology that allows the bike to run on quiet electricity and recharge with a gas-fueled motor when stealth isn't as important. Two prototype bikes, the Silent Hawk by Logos and the Nightmare from LSA Autonomy, are part of an ongoing program run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to deliver commandos a truly flex-fueled motorcycle.
These high-tech bikes can run on just about any kind of fuel, including JP-8 jet fuel and propane, and can switch to a quiet electric motor for silent insertions. When the motor's running, the engine purrs at a whispery 80 decibels, about the same amount of noise as a vacuum cleaner.
While these bikes may still be a few years off before they're deployed to worldwide combat zones, special operations units are setting their sights on today's motorcycles that can go anywhere and are much easier to operate than standard ones.
An Air Force Special Tactics airman on a Christini AWD motorcycle. (Photo from U.S. Military)
A recent solicitation for industry from Air Force Special Operations Command calls for an order of Christini All-wheel Drive motorcycles for its special tactics teams. The Christini's AWD capability "adds an element of control and capability that is not available on other motorcycles with the exact same overall weight," the Air Force says.
The 450cc motorcycle uses a so-called "Rekluse" automatic clutch that allows the commando to stop at a moment's notice without stalling and continue on without going through restart procedures, delivering "the operator an extreme tactical advantage on the battlefield."
The Christini also has flex-foam run-flat tires that can take bullets and keep going "making a flat tire impossible," the Air Force says.
Clearly, from the pre-World War I Army to the most elite special operators of today, the motorcycle is here to stay as an option for stealthy, all-terrain transport to get troops where they're needed in any clime and place.