Magazine article National Defense

Military Units Experiment with Ultralight Vehicles

Magazine article National Defense

Military Units Experiment with Ultralight Vehicles

Article excerpt

To provide increased mobility and agility during combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other remote and rugged locations, some U.S. military units ate trying out a variety of vehicles that are much smaller and lighter than traditional platforms.

These ultralight vehicles, as they sometimes are called, range from all-terrain vehicles and modified golf carts to a new generation of battery-powered bicycles and motorcycles. The ultralights will never replace standard humvees and trucks, officials concede, but they can assist infantry operating in places that are out of reach to heavier vehicles.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, Army airborne, Marine Corps and special operations units deployed the M-Gator, the military version of a utility vehicle originally designed for use on golf courses.

The M-Gator--made by the John Deere Company, of Moline, Ill.--is a topless vehicle with six wheels and no windshield. About three feet high, five feet wide and 10 inches off the ground, it has two front seats and can haul up to 1,400 pounds of cargo. It has an 18 hp engine that runs on diesel fuel and can reach speeds of 18 mph.

That may seem puny, compared to a humvee, which is twice as high, carries dame times as much weight and has a 150 hp engine, capable of up to 65 mph.

A critical advantage for the M-Gator, however, is its weight, said Dan Smith, the vehicle's program manager at John Deere. The M-Gator weighs 1,450 pounds, compared to 3.8 tons for a humvee, he said.

With the M-Gator's small size and weight, "you can put two M-Gators and 20 troopers on a [CVH-47] Chinook [helicopter]," Smith said. "You can put one humvee on a Chinook, but it takes forever to get it on and off. It's a very tight fit."

The M-Gator also can be air-dropped from a C-130 [transport aircraft]," he said.

During Operation Anaconda, one of the fiercest battles in the Afghanistan campaign, M-Gators were quite useful, said Col. Frank Wiercinski, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade in that engagement. "Quite honestly," he told National Defense, "they were like a godsend at that altitude and in that rugged environment."

On the steep, snowy mountainsides of eastern Afghanistan, "slinging larger vehicles [by helicopter] under fire would have been very difficult," said Wiercinski, who is now chief of regional special operations, at the J-3 operations directorate of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.

Troopers used the M-Gators to move ammunition, fuel and casualties, Wiercinski said. "We mounted weapons systems--.50 cal. machine guns and Mark 19s (automatic grenade launchers)--on them," he said.

When Tires Fall Off

"They weren't moving very fast, and they weren't carrying a lot of things," Wiercinski said. "But they were invaluable. We drove them until the tires fell off, and then, we drove them on the rims," he said.

It was no accident, Smith said, that the M-gators kept on moving, even though the tires wore out. "They're designed to run up to 50 miles with flatures," he said.

M-Gators are not standard equipment for U.S. ground combat units. The Army is drawing up an operational requirements document for something like the M-Gator called the light utility mobility enhancement system, of LUMES. The M-Gator and similar vehicles could meet those requirements, Smith said.

Funding for LUMES, however, won't be available until 2005, at the earliest. In the meantime, many light infantry units like the M-Gator so much that they are buying them on their own. More than 1,000 have been sold since 2000, when they were first fielded at Fort Bragg, N.C., Smith said.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., citing the M-Gator's "great success in Afghanistan," added $4.1 million to the fiscal year 2003 budget to buy more of them for units at Fort Campbell, Ky. Fort Campbell is home to the 101st, the 5th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Regiment. …

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