Combat Pickup Trucks: The Resurrection of the Technical as a Combat Mobile Platform in Irregular Warfare and Urban Combat

Text and Photos by Julio A. Montes

The pickup has become a symbol of the new combat mobile forces both in the hands of government forces and irregular fighters. This mode of mounted combat is found in places as far away as Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, as well as those forces on this side of the planet, and gaining popularity as motorized combat units in Mexico, Central and North-South America, and catching up in South America. Within the last few years, even the U.S. Army has made larger use of the combat pickup. The term of militarized pickup, also known as improvised fighting vehicle, lorry or gunship, or even "technical" is usually applied to a commercial small light truck, modified in different forms to function as a mobile instrument of war, either as an urban patrol vehicle, or military warfare machine, or even as insurgent or rebel mobile means. The combat pickup provides for an effective fighting platform, presenting a lower military profile, on a proven and low maintenance automotive base for a low risk operational cost.

So prominent was the Toyota Hilux on different fronts, for instance, that eventually it received the nickname of "guerrilla truck,” and gained a comparison to the ever present Kalashnikov in both rebels and government hands around the globe. Insurgents in Afghanistan have seized and used the Hilux; many of them supplied by the Canadian government to local communities. It is also of interest to see how the same U.S. Special Forces took Toyota Tacoma pickups and other Ford models, and completely modified them to their own designs, to include even turrets and side protection plates. Meanwhile, Afghan government forces themselves would be supplied with more than 5,000 models of Ford SROV / Rangers for operational use.

The Fox Jankel is another example of a highly modified Toyota with a tubular and modular structure to fulfill combat missions. The Al-Thalab LRPV variant presents a vehicle suitable for reconnaissance and long-range patrol. It basically consists of a commercial version completely modified and conditioned to being able to engage in tasks and missions usually in the range of more dedicated and expensive military vehicles. The Toyota pickup has been as prominent as means of warfare that the conflict between Chad and Libya years ago would be called the "Toyota War."

Recently, Indigen Armor developed the SNT, which is a non-standard tactical light truck designed specifically as a military pickup for fighting operations and mobility in urban, desert, forest, jungle, mountain and arctic environments. The NSTT combines elements from Nissan Titan and Frontier and the Hilux, with a chassis, suspension and drive train properly modified.

The Volkswagen Amarok M is another commercial example modified accordingly by Rheinmetall to give the power to different military needs with two train engine options: 122 hp or 180 hp diesels, and both associated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. The M version has a reinforced chassis to withstand heavier loads, which also improves towing capacity to 2.5 tons.

Certainly, commercial light truck models need to be modified according to military requirements before incorporation as combat tools. Basically and commonly, a modular tubular cage is adapted that doubles as an anti-roll bar protection, and allows the installation of diverse loads, communication systems, ammunition, water and fuel, as well as gun points. The Salvadorian Ford / Rangers, for instance, have received minor modifications to include a roll bar and a front bumper bar protection. F250 versions of Salvadoran Special Forces Command, on the other hand, have been fully modified with rods around the bed, troop carrying benches, and side pedestals. In Guatemala, the Army uses the Toyota Hilux and Tacomas as patrol vehicles, generally equipped with a simple roll bar that serves as a pedestal to a MAG-58, outward facing seats in the bed, and on the rails around the bed they fit pocket bags with ballistic protection plates, transforming them in simple light troop-transport-protected (TTP) carriers. By 2009 about 60 Toyotas were reported modified in this way, and many more of them have been completed since them.

In Honduras, Special Forces Ford F-350 pickups were modified with roll bars sporting three machine gun pedestals, covering the frontal arc and sides, and benches were placed in the bed where crews sit back-to-back. Some units have seen the need to provide armored protection, particularly after it was announced that in weapons seizures in San Pedro Sula, it included 38 M72 LAW anti-tank rocket launchers, and other powerful weapons. This is the Honduran equivalent to the Ranger Course, and it is part of the elite 2nd Infantry Battalion (Airborne). It is also important to point out that both El Salvador and Guatemala report heavy weapons in the hands of criminal organizations and gangs. The presence of these implements is of particular concern, as they could easily knock out any mobile unit. Salvadorian guerrillas armed with RPG-2 and RPG-7s caused considerable damage to government armored and motorized formations during the 80s. During that conflict, the Salvadorian Army made extensive use of TTPs in the form of highly modified armored Dodge pickups. These were denominated Cashuats, and can be described as armored pickups in a concept basically similar to the modern M1152 TTP. The Cashuat uses a M37B Dodge 3/4 ton base, and remains in front line use, being modified now with Toyota Hilux commercial parts.

Specializing the Pickup Truck as a Combat Tool

It is unfair to compare commercial pickups to the dedicated military variants, but the fact remains that the first one provides flexibility, at a much lowered acquisition price tag, with a parallel reduction of maintenance and operational costs. It adds a cheapened and less complicated logistics on a platform that – modified accordingly for a few additional thousand dollars – compares reasonably to the more sophisticated and dedicated – and more expensive – military variant to undertake everyday and more general tasks. We do need to clarify that in specific scenarios there is little comparison between the commercial versions and military models.

So great has been the success of combat pickups that there has been a proliferation of specializing enterprises in Europe and the U.S. dedicated to modifying or producing accessories to commercial pickups for conversion to combat models, and transforming them to make them suitable for fighting or other military needs. Dillon Aero, for instance, has designed a pedestal with a ring that allows a machine gun, grenade launcher, automatic recoilless rifle or light cannon, to cover a 360 degree arc of horizontal fire. The Czech SVOS produces an interesting module applicable to Toyota Hilux or Ford Ranger style models. Ovik, another European company, proposes the Chameleon IV440, transforming an Iveco Daily 4x4 with a Jez Hermer MBE design. The Ovik range includes the FSV Taipan, based on the Defender 110, and the Strike based on the Xenon TATA pickup. The Automotive Ricardo from Great Britain is famous for changes implemented to the Land Rover Defender for use of the SAS and other British forces, and the transformation of the Ford F-350 to equip the Irish Army Ranger Wing. The RMA Group has been commissioned to modify the Ford Ranger supplied to Afghanistan by the U.S.

Heavy Weapons Platforms

Combat pickups are generally fitted with small caliber guns, and/or anti-tank missiles. In extreme cases, the pickups carry quad machine gun mounts, or even twin 20 to 23mm cannons. The pickup is replacing the Mercedes Unimog, Reo M35, and Ural guntrucks found around the world. Technological innovations allow for powerful compact diesel engines, and improved suspensions that make it possible to place large loads on small pickups beds without sacrificing mobility and mechanical reliability. Certainly, it is preferable to apply these gun platform configurations to specialized platforms, such as the Tiuna, GM-M1152, Mercedes-LAPV7, Rheinmetall Wolf AGF / LIV (SO) or the like, but can also be carried on the aforementioned commercial pickups, taking the precaution of placing the mounts on a raised platform that allow for a 360 degree gun rotation without disturbing the driving cabin and without disturbing the balance and stability of the platform. Such modifications allows for an affordable way of modernization and mechanizing otherwise obsolete small cannon/MG point defense systems, such as quadruple M55 pieces (Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and others), M55A2 (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), TCM-20 (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador), and ZU-23 (Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela).

A fairly common weapon in those arsenals, and one of awesome power, is the 106mm M40A1 Recoilless Rifle. The M40A1 is in fact the main direct support and anti-tank weapon of the Mexican, Central and Northern South American armies and a favorite weapon on gun-jeeps and gun-pickups.

It is noted that a modernization package developed by Bofors Dynamics in the 1990s worked well on the M40A1 and would work as well on small caliber cannons and other similar weapons. This would allow 20-25mm cannons to be aligned in something similar to the ROC's T75 20mm gun model. The Bofors package matched a Simrad LP101 laser rangefinder to engage targets up to 2,000 meters in place of the obsolete 12.7mm spotting designator. The sight illuminated the target, automatically calculating the distance and transmitting data to a firing calculator, and simultaneously passing data to a Simrad KN250 optic sight, with automatic calculations of the required elevation and angle to fire. The KN250 was a light intensifier telescope for night combat. Simrad Optronics AS is part of Simrad Optronics Group from Norway, and now part of Rheinmetall AG. An alternative would consist in making use of the Israeli LAHAT (Laser Homing Attack or Laser Homing Anti-Tank) missile and respective sights developed by Israel. The LAHAT is fired from the 105mm tube to targets 8km away.

The use of these weapons on mobile platforms has gained importance in Mexico and Guatemala with the emergence of armored vehicles in the hands of thugs and capos. Authorities have seized vehicles with basic Level-I protection and up to Level IV models. In Mexico, soldiers captured several "Monster," or armored guntrucks at the hands of drug traffickers in Zacatecas, along with 12.7mm anti-material rifles. If necessary, the M40A1 or 20mm guns could neutralize such targets at long distances. The M40A1 would also defeat any built-up stronghold.

Of course, the type of weapon to be placed in a combat pickup depends on the mission or task assigned to the unit, and the type of enemy to be engaged. As a simple patrol, support, and reconnaissance vehicle, the pickups just need to accommodate communication equipment, rod-protecting bars, light guns, ammunition, extra fuel, water and rations.

Latin Fighting Pickups

As part of the sequester, the U.S. is cutting some $65 billion in military hardware. This includes trucks, aircraft, and armored vehicles. The equipment in Afghanistan is unlikely to reach Latin American allies since the theater is mountainous and landlocked, making exit by land difficult and an air exit expensive. However, similar arsenals are being decommissioned within the U.S. and other places accessible to those mentioned allies. Off course, speaking of automotive materials, the first thing that comes to mind is the disposition of thousands of Humvees. Many of them could be supplied to Mexico, Central America and Colombia, and effectively, more Humvees have been seen in the hands of Guatemalan, Salvadorian and Honduran forces. The shipment could include M1152 pickup variants, which could eventually be modified as mentioned above. Mexico and Colombia have ordered additional vehicles to complement their arsenals.

The M1152 TTP, which basically matches the latest up-armored pickup version of the humvee to a protected crew compartment to the bed, could be used to replace the Cashuats in El Salvador. The Humvee is used in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, in addition to Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile. In El Salvador some 40 M1151 and M1165 variants are in use. Guatemala has received "on loan" dozens of M1151 and M1152, and even Honduras has received M1025 variants in recent days.

The Colombian military does not appear to make use of much commercial pickup models, but does depend on the M462 Abir and Humvee. The Abir is a 4x4 model developed by the Automotive Industries Limited (AIL) from the M-325 Command Car. It is a conventional pickup equipped with a GM diesel engine. It is used mostly as a weapon platform for the M40A1 and troop carrying. In neighboring Venezuela, the local industry produces the Tiuna, which can be described as a design closely resembling the Humvee. There are variants equipped with the TCM-20 cannon system and M40A1 RCL.

It does not escape the comparative cost between a mini-truck and a dedicated military variant in the range of M1151/M1152. The U.S. donation to the Army of Honduras of 25 Ford F-350 had a cost of $812,000; while donating 37 Ford Ranger pickups to the Salvadorian Armed Forces cost $1 million. The 34 Hino trucks donated by the United States to the Guatemalan Ministry of National Defense had a cost of $33,890 each, for a total of $1,152,260. The cost of a single M1152 comes around $250,000 and those M1151 and M1165 donated to El Salvador in 2005 and delivered starting in 2009 had a base cost of $160,000 each.

All Central American authorities make extensive use of either Nissan, Toyota or Ford pickups as police and patrol vehicles. In some cases these are modified as gun platforms.

It is in Mexico where the pickup has become the main mobile platform used in urban and irregular warfare against organized crime. Mexico has a strong automotive industry and is able to meet all military requirements within. Over 2,000 pickups have been purchased to supplement some 3,000 Humvees. It is also important to note that most Mexican military pickups are of U.S. origins. Mexican military outfits use a large fleet of Cheyenne, RAM 4000, 2500 Dodge, Ford Lobo (Mexican version of the F150 and referred to as mini-commando), F-350 and F450. The Federal Police uses Dodge Chargers as well as F-150. All these models have been modified as fighting and patrol vehicles, accommodating a "tubular cage" that seconds as an anti-roll bar. The cage is fitted with gun mounts and the bed accommodates a troop carrying bench, seating the crew back to back. The Chevrolet Cheyenne model is generally equipped with a V8 500hp 6.0 L turbocharged diesel. The pickups are painted with an exclusive tone. In theory, the Mexican industry has the capacity to transform its pickups in similar lines to the Special Reconnaissance Vehicle (SRV) developed for the Irish Army Ranger Wing (ARW) in Europe. The selection in Mexico has much to do with logistics, with most models being built locally, which add to the simplicity, economy and flexibility, while providing standardization, saving effort, time and space, with spares found in every corner within the country. The prominence and effectiveness of these vehicles was emphasized in 2011 when U.S. and Mexican authorities warned about the presence of "cloned" pickup trucks used by organized criminal organizations, and modified to look as police vehicles. Clones were seized in Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Sonora and Michoacán. The reality is that the future of combat pickups in Mexico, Central America and Northern South America is fully insured.

This article first appeared in SmallArmsReview.com on October 25, 2013


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