Motorcycles in the Military | War Wheels

Think last man standing is a yawn? Try riding behind enemy lines...

They're nothing new, of course. Armies have exploited motorcycles' tactical value since WWI. Speedier than runners, bicyclists, horse-mounted dispatch riders or jeeps, and arguably more reliable than carrier pigeons, motorcycles can convey printed documents without concern for code-breakers or hackers. They make small targets, can spirit commanders from worsening battlefronts and maybe even serve as weapon platforms.

Today's military owns a growing fleet of war wheels. Well, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) does. They've been in the teeth of battle with some very intense, very gutsy guys. One is Wayne Norrad. Currently retired, he consults for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and recruits for the Air Force Special Tactics Group at Hurlbert Field, Florida.

Norrad works with Combat Air Controllers and Para Rescuemen-their equally harrowing missions sometimes commingle. Both require battle preps that are mind-bendingly intense. The one-year program is on par with the Navy SEALS, with whom Air Force SpecOps people often embed. For four years these special operators have been "training up" with motorcycles. Three guesses where the bikes and riders are deployed, and the first two don't count.

Norrad, a former CAC, knows whereof he speaks. One mission had him, fellow CACs and Para Rescuemen skydiving-with bikes-onto a hostile airfield in Panama during 1989's Operation Just Cause. That one ousted Manuel Noriega and landed him in a U.S. jail. "Bikes were the first parachuted objects out of the C-130s," Norrad remembers, followed immediately by air commandos like him. "We used them to get around the airfields for mobility, security and to put out infrared landing lights because we had airplanes coming in with lights off." Actually, dropping into hot landing zones with dirtbikes is only one scary scenario for these people. Their mottos-"First There" for CACs and "That Others May Live" for Para Rescuers-are sacred.

Joe Polhamus, another Air Force civilian, is an Advanced Field Training (AFT) instructor and training manager at the AF SpecOps School. He says CACs and Para Rescuemen go through several phases of rigorous training. Concentrated motorcycle instruction is just part of it. War wheelers learn about observing and reporting enemy movements, land navigation and related skills. Later, they're introduced to night-vision goggles. Surviving CACs win the coveted scarlet beret; Para Rescuemen wear maroon.

"Every student that comes through AFT is given a couple of days out in the field soon after they get here," says Polhamus. Newbies are immersed in a special Motorcycle Safety Foundation Dirt Bike School. "We spend about two days in a desolate area away from everyone and everything, and teach 'em from nothing to something. We have guys who have never touched a clutch before-even on a four-wheeler-and by the time they're done with the course they feel pretty comfortable, almost cocky. By the time they leave, everyone wants to buy a streetbike or dirtbike."

Chief Master Sgt. Gary Emery, an AFSOC media type who arranged our conference call, says, "Bikes are just one arrow in our quiver. These guys are trained for all sorts of eventualities." An Air Force fact sheet describes their mission: "...to deploy undetected into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air-traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, humanitarian assistance and special reconnaissance."

Mostly troops use stouthearted, '80s-vintage Kawasaki KLR250 liquid-cooled four-strokes. But lately they've added Yamaha's new air-cooled, electric-start XT225. The Kawis are Military Package models-fortified iterations of standard KLRs painted flat-black with infrared headlights, blacked-out taillights, heavy-duty suspension, bash bars and a grab handle on back for gear. The 250s boast rifle lash points and quick-release bash bars in front for standard M-4 service rifles (updated M-16s.). Fuel is 87-octane, so it can be siphoned out of the ATVs and Hummers.

Rubber? Also standard. "We don't know where we might be going so we can't have anything specialized," Polhamus explains. "For flooded areas I'd prefer a sand tire, but because this thing is on runways and regular roads we need neutral enduro tires." The KLRs don't officially exceed 30 mph on the open road, "but you know these young men are still going to try to find out how fast these things go." The saddle looks stock, but MilSpec bikes aren't meant for passengers. "Most of the time the seat is where the soldier's (150-pound) rucksack rests while it's on his back." As for the riders, they put on the same combat gear, boots, helmet, eyewear, etc. that regular troops deploy with. Each rider carries a pocket-sized GPS for navigation.

Maintenance-wise, the KLR "is a very sound bike," Polhamus explains, but it's not perfect. "It's not used to running in the cold per se, so starting it then is pretty difficult. Once you get it running it's hard to break, but when it breaks, it breaks hard. "Guys who haven't ridden before drop it every time, and they wrap it around trees sometimes, but [between the AFSOC maintenance staff and local dealers] we bend the things back." Unlike civilian models whose specs can shift a lot from one year to the next, these MilSpec bikes change very little.

The bikes' mission is much as it was in Norrad's day: "flexible mobility," airfield security and lighting. And much scarier things we'll never hear about. Some bikes perform convoy escort duty, but their riders would rather not. They feel especially vulnerable plying the explosive-infested highways of Baghdad and vicinity. Nor do Yanks chase the enemy into their hilly hideouts outside of town. Bikes, Norrad reminds us, are anything but stealthy, so bad actors can hear or spot 'em en route. Choppers are faster and more lethal.

Although recruitment goals are hardly being met for the regular services, SpecOps forces like the Air Force's are seeing a rise in applicants. "Special Operations in general are hiring. Our unconventional forces are the wave of the future in the global war on terrorism," says Chief Emery. That's helped by exhibitions of the military bikes at AMA Supercross rounds. "People who participate in extreme sports are the kind we're looking for," Emery notes. "They're the ones we think can handle the fast pace and have the qualities we need for special operators, who are very special people."

In the four years the AFSOC has been using bikes, 10 percent of its recruits are ex-motocrossers and other skilled dirt types. "You can definitely see the difference between those who've ridden semi-Pro and the guys who ride in the backyard," says Polhamus. "They're very aggressive riders. During the initial safety course they're bored to death, but get 'em on the open course and they really shine. We don't encourage hot-dogging or wheelies or jumps-we're trying to get them through the woods safely and undetected-but you can still see just how really together they are."

Some 300 students have completed the motorcycle courses at the AFSOC School over the last four years. For SpecOps writ large (the four services, that is), the Pentagon hopes to add another 13,000 soldiers over the next five years. The Air Force needs 426 combat controllers. As of this writing, it has 350. A full complement of Para Rescuers is 123; presently, there are 90. Since 2002, the U.S. Special Operations Command has added 6000 people and almost doubled its budget, according to the Pentagon. There are about 17,000 special operations troops in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.