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How motorcycles could represent the future of warfare

After two decades of war mostly being confined to insurgencies, conventional warfare has returned to the world. From Ukraine, to the Caucuses, to maybe the Middle East in the near future, we are seeing near-peer armies fighting each other with modern advanced weapon systems.

What makes this moment interesting, from a military perspective, is that during the preceding years of relative peace there have been decades of massive innovations in military technology. But since we’ve had such a long period of peace, no one really knows how to best use this new technology on the battlefield against an enemy who also is wielding similar technology.  

The most apt comparison to this moment is World War I. When the Great War started, new technology like machine guns, barbed wire, and advanced artillery had been developed. However, since this new technology hadn’t been used at scale against a peer before, the generals didn’t know how to best fight in this new environment. The tragic result was that in the first few years of WWI, millions of Europe’s young men died on suicidal charges through barbed wire into machine guns and artillery fire. The conflict devolved into a terrible war of attrition, as both sides fought and died in trenches while remaining in a stalemate.

Today, over a hundred years later, in eastern Ukraine we see once again a conflict with both sides utilizing new technology that has devolved into a trench warfare stalemate. 

So how did we get here? To understand this, we have to examine what technology has been developed, and how that’s changed warfare.

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Through WWII and throughout the Cold War, the thinking was that the tank and armored vehicles were key for dominating land warfare. And it made sense. Many attributed tanks as the key element of combined arms warfare, that allowed armies to not get bogged down in trench warfare. Plus, tanks were formidable weapons. If you were an infantryman and wanted to destroy a tank, you’d have to risk getting within 60 meters of one if you wanted to take a shot at it with a bazooka of panzerfaust.

But over the past few decades, recent conflicts seemed to suggest that the balance of power had shifted away from the tank and towards the infantryman. The reason for this was quite simple: the modern infantryman now carries a lot more firepower than he did in the past. 

We saw this change really develop from the 2000s on in Middle Eastern conflicts. In both the Israeli incursion into Lebanon and the Syrian Civil War, tanks had to not only deal with RPGs which could knock out a tank at 600 meters, 10 times further than WWII anti-tank weapons, but they now had to deal with TOWs which are missile launchers that can shoot a couple kilometers. These advanced weapons halted the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 2006, and decimated Assad’s armored units in Syria.

Today the Javelin anti-tank weapons we see used in Ukraine fire warheads that can guide themselves to destroy a tank from 4 kilometers away. This technology helped the Ukrainians destroy the Russian armored columns that advanced on Kiev in the opening weeks of the war. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, the Russians have similar technology, and were able to use it to defeat Ukraine’s armor-heavy counter-offensive this spring.

So with these advanced weapons does the modern battlefield belong to the infantryman? Not quite. Over the past three years we’ve seen the proliferation of drones truly transform warfare. Suddenly, now it’s not just the rich nations who can have an air force. We saw this dynamic play out in the impoverished country of Ethiopia. In November 2021, a large army of Tigrayan rebels was advancing towards the Ethiopian capital, Adis Ababa. With not a lot of troops or planes available, and only 80 miles separating the capital from the rebel army, people feared that Adia Ababa would fall. It got so desperate that the Ethiopian Prime Minister himself joined his troops on the front lines.

Fortunately for the Ethiopians, they had purchased a fleet of cheap Middle Eastern drones. And these cheap drones changed the course of the war. The Tigrayan rebels had to advance along these narrow mountain passes, and the Ethiopians would have swarms of ten drones at a time attacking the rebels. They were killing rebel leaders, blowing up tanks, destroying rebel supply depots, and guiding Ethiopian jets to their targets. The rebels were completely demoralized by these drone swarm attacks, and Ethiopia’s drone fleet turned the rebels’ attack into a retreat.

When most people think of drones, they usually think of unmanned airplanes, like the MQ1-Predator, that can shoot hellfire missiles at people. And while that’s useful, that’s not the real value of drones. The real value of drones is their ability to hover above the battlefield and observe. They provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, to their army. In other words, since their army now knows where the enemy is, instead of dropping just a drone’s payload on the enemy, they can tell their artillery batteries, rocket forces, and fighter jets, where they should fire their weapons.  

While drones can call in heavy fire on the enemy’s front lines, they can fly beyond the enemy’s lines and find other targets. Places like supply depots in the rear, convoys of soldiers on their way to the front, or long-range artillery positions can equally be targeted. What this means is that the whole concept of a “front line” is becoming antiquated, as forces can get hit in a zone spanning over 50 kilometers.

What makes drones so annoying, is that no one has really found a good counter for them. Sometimes they get shot down. Or there are little windows where electronic warfare can jam them. But even then, neither Russia, NATO, Israel, or any other actor facing drones has found a reliable way to defeat them.

For the poor soldier on the ground, it’s not just these drones looking down on them. In 2016 there were 1400 satellites in space. Last year, thanks to Elon Musk’s innovations in space technology there were 7000. And many more are coming. Many of these satellites are imagery satellites that are either run by governments or private companies. It’s now next to impossible to assemble a modern army that can’t be seen from space. Plus, if that army moves, every person nearby with a cellphone can immediately broadcast the army’s location to the world by posting online.

So what does it mean to be a soldier where drones, cellphones, and satellites are streaming your location in real time? It means that the enemy is going to be firing a lot of artillery at you. And that’s what we’re seeing happen in Ukraine. The moment soldiers leave their hiding place they are either shelled by artillery or are attacked by Kamikaze drones. In defense, people are acting logically – digging trenches, bunkering down, and staying in fortified positions rather than moving. In other words, we have returned to WWI-style war of attrition complete with trench warfare.

What military strategists need is a way to change this dynamic. A new strategy to give the guy on the ground a chance, not only to survive, but to win. In a battlefield where the skies are saturated by drones which make it so that soldiers can’t run or hide… how do you counter this?

Believe it or not, terrorists have found out a way…

Jihadist insurgent groups ride motorcycles in Mali, 2018

After decades of being on the receiving end of drone warfare, by the 2020s jihadist insurgent groups became pretty adept at working around them. The best example of this is the Al’Qaeda coalition JNIM in West Africa. For years, these impoverished jihadists have used motorcycles not only to evade the drone-rich French and their Western allies in the Sahel, but to also launch lightning-fast raids against outposts.

After using motorcycle raids over the past five years, the jihadists have wrecked the armies of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. They rule over hundreds of kilometers of territory, threaten the capitals of these countries, and have caused such a security threat that countries like Mali have hired mercenaries from the Wagner group to fight the jihadists… but even these Russians can’t stop these motorcycle armies from owning the countryside. It’s gotten so bad that in some regions in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, the government has banned the civilian use of motorcycles.

When the Taliban captured Afghanistan over a lightning-fast couple of months in 2021, the Taliban forces spearheaded their blitz from city to city with militants on motorcycles. When Hamas launched their attack from Gaza, squads of gunmen used motorcycles to quickly travel between villages in southern Israel. So what makes motorcycles so good against an enemy who has drones? In short, it allows your troops to run and hide.

Let’s look at running. It’s easy for a drone to track a slow-moving armored personnel carrier with ten soldiers in it. It’s a lot harder to track ten different soldiers on motorcycles. Not only are they moving faster, but they can split up and travel in different directions. You can be following one with a drone, and then suddenly it disappears behind a building or under some trees. A drone operator can’t call in artillery on these guys, as they’re moving so quickly he doesn’t know where they’ll be next. If they want to use a kamikaze drone against one of the riders, sure he can hit him, but now they are only killing one man instead of ten, which is what they’d kill if they hit an armored personnel carrier.

When targeting regular vehicles, drone operators have a good idea of where to spot the enemy – mainly on roads. Motorcycles, however, can go places where even versatile vehicles like pickup trucks can’t. Motorcycles can drive through forests, and hide underneath the canopy of leaves. They can traverse through mountain passes, which are too narrow and dangerous for other vehicles to go through. If outfitted right they can go through waist-deep water, and they perform better in mud. If a drone is searching for motorcycle infantry, now it has much more territory to monitor, as motorcycle infantry can go almost anywhere.

Even in war-torn urban settings, motorcycles have been found to be useful. In 2012 Syrian rebels used cheap Chinese motorcycles in urban combat, as they allowed both men and material to be transported quickly across rubble-strewn roads that were too difficult for trucks to traverse. Additionally, they required a lot less fuel, which was useful due to being in a state of siege. It’s likely that these two factors might cause Hamas to use motorcycles as a backup form of logistics in the event of an Israeli incursion into Gaza. 

Not only are motorcycles able to evade drones, but they are also very easy to hide. Compared to other vehicles, motorcycles are the most stealthy out there. Bikes are light enough and narrow enough that you can stuff dozens of them into a house. If not in an urban area, simply throwing a tarp or a camouflage net over them can evade detection.

So how would motorcycle infantry be used on the battlefield of the future? They are not going to be used to charge the enemy head-on. Instead, they’re going to be used like horse archers in the past. They are going to get behind enemy lines and attack the enemy with the new lethal long-range weapons available to infantrymen today. While these soldiers would likely be armed with rifles and machine guns, many would also carry long-range anti-tank weapons like Javelins or anti-aircraft MANPADS like Stingers. But most interestingly, many of them would be armed with drones of their own.

One of the most impressive weapons to be widely used in Ukraine are loitering munitions/kamikaze drones like the Switchblade. The Switchblade is small enough for a soldier to carry with them, they can launch up into the air with a small mortar tube, and guide it with a gaming controller. It can travel 40 km away from the operator, and can loiter in the air for an additional 20 minutes as the operator looks around for targets.  Switchblades carry the same warhead as a javelin missile, but are only a quarter of the price.

Imagine what happens when hundreds of stealthy motorcycles slip past enemy lines, and the riders start hiding in buildings or in forests, and start launching hundreds upon hundreds of kamikaze drones at enemy artillery, supply depots, in the enemy’s rear, or target any enemy forces within a 40 km radius. The air defenses would have no idea where to look. The enemy would have a massive area to search to try to find the riders, and the whole time they are getting ambushed by swarms of drones. It would be both chaotic and brutal.

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While this sounds like this could be a game-changer on the battlefield, I suspect it is unlikely that the US military or any other Western army will be quick to adapt this tactic. This is because, as the Anarchonomicon Substack argues, motorcycles are incredibly dangerous. A micromort is a unit in insurance and actuarial accounting which accounts for a 1 in a million chance of dying when doing an activity. An activity like skydiving generates 8 micromorts every time you jump. A normal activity like driving your car generates 1 micromort for every 370 km you drive. The micromort rate for motorcycles? 1 micromort for every 10 km driven. 

If you drive a motorcycle the same rate people drive cars, within a decade you have acquired 40,000 micromorts, meaning a 4% chance of death. To put that in comparison, climbing Mount Everest only gets you 38,000 micromorts. And that’s not counting the even higher rate of injury that comes from motorcycles accidents. Building a motorcycle-mounted force could mean losing 1-2% of your force per year to either debilitating injuries or death. This is a bad investment for peacetime Western militaries who would have to make disability payments to these veterans for the rest of their lives. However, this calculus could change during a war where a nation felt that its survival was at stake, and that the outcomes could justify the risk.

With each month that goes by, we are seeing more signs that motorcycles will be employed by modern militaries. In July, the Sunday Times reported that British anti-tank troops were experimenting with using off-road electric bikes. In September, Taiwan created a motorcycle unit for their military police tasked with protecting Taiwan from special forces units. In October, videos emerged on social media of dirt bike-mounted Hezbollah troops heading towards the border with Israel. As war continues to break out around the world, and with soldiers needing a way to counter the effects of drones, I suspect that this new form of cavalry will fight on the battlefields of the future. 

Peter Paradise is an American writer.


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