If you thought the dawn of Special Forces soldiers burning across the moonlight sand dunes of Iraq on hyper-bikes was far away—guess again. The almost Star Wars-like military scenario is in the works according to media reports and a new project from the US Defense Department's high-rish tech lab, DARPA.
Earlier this year, ISIS sent shockwaves through the West by releasing gruesome videos depicting the beheadings of western aid workers and journalists. After that, news swirled of covert missions potentially aimed at rescuing captured westerners who were with ISIS, deep behind enemy lines.
Shortly after the release of the now infamous James Foley video, British media revealed that an extremely secretive joint unit of the British SAS and American Special Forces called "Task Force Black" was authorized for redeployment to Iraq and Syria. This unit, like most other special operations units, goes about its business in silence, and any attempts to publicize its work is met with fierce resistance, as author Mark Urban learned the hard way.
Task Force Black is the derivative of an earlier joint effort by the US and British militaries called Task Force 145 that combined elements of Navy SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, SAS, MI6, and the CIA's Special Activities Division.
The unit has operated with great success in the past, as the Telegraph revealed in 2008. An unknown British official acknowledging the unit brought down 3,500 insurgents in under 18 months. While the technology and tools required to achieve these results is highly classified, once in a while, DARPA does give us some hints on the types of war trinkets the most covert soldiers use.
One such glimpse came in early 2014, when DARPA awarded a $100,000 small phase innovation research contract to a little known company called Logos Technologies. According to the Logos website, the DARPA program "calls for a lightweight, rugged, single-track vehicle that can operate near-silently for extended periods while transporting small, distributed forces over hostile terrain."
The company release goes on to say that the vehicle will combine Logo Technologies' "hybrid-electric power system with a cutting-edge, off road electric motorcycle platform" that will give operators "near-silent capability and ease of operation of an all-electric vehicle."
These vehicles certainly fit in line with an August announcement from DARPA that the US military will be moving away from highly armoured and heavy vehicles, focusing more on creating mobile fighting platforms. Superfast, covert bikes, capable of in-and-out, surgical war clearly fits the bill when it comes to the US Army's growing dependence on Special Forces operations.
Almost ten months after that initial announcement of a stealth bike, the British media broke a stunning story: sources told British journalists that SAS snipers on ATV's were being airdropped into combat range by Chinook helicopters under the cover of darkness. The tactic was proving to be enormously effective, not only from a strict kill-to-casualty ratio, but also from a psychological operations perspective.
"We're degrading their morale," the source claimed to the Daily Star. "They can run and hide if they see planes in the sky but they can't see or hear us. Using so many snipers takes the fear factor to another level too; the terrorists don't know what's happening. They just see their colleagues lying dead in the sand."
ATV's are horrendously loud vehicles, and while it's possible to dampen their noise output, there's no way to completely eliminate the noise to operate at the level of a hybrid electric engine. It's likely that the reason DARPA issued the RFP for a stealth back in February was precisely to address this type of mission.
"First we had special forces guys on horses when we were going into Afghanistan." former Navy SEAL Jonathan Gilliam told me. "For where they were going, horses were the fastest, most capable and covert method of getting around the mountains. You can see horse tracks and not think anything of it, but if you see ATV tracks, people in those villages will know that someone's there.
"The faster we can actually act on the battlefield and couple it with stealth, that allows us to really make a big, big impact quickly. Whereas you had a platoon that was walking in before, now that you can have units on stealth bikes, you're going to be able to get in and out of amazing places. DARPA just forward thinks these things and I think DARPA is probably the unsung hero of the battlefield now because of that forward-thinking."
Bikes are lighter and smaller, thereby making them easier to transport, either by MH-47 Chinook's or the CV-22 Osprey. The units could be dropped far enough away that no enemy combatant could hear the aircraft and make their way to the target in complete and utter silence. That being said, Gilliam thinks, "even if you have stealthy technology, it will be extremely hard to get in and out without being noticed. The awareness of the neighbourhood will always be a determining factor. For one thing, dogs will always know you're there unless you're just absolutely invisible."
Considering that experts have said the battle against ISIS could potentially last years, the need to develop new technologies that allow for very specific missions is crucial. A Logos spokesperson told me that they are expecting an imminent announcement from DARPA for the go ahead on phase II of its project.
With the advent of potential Iron Man suits and stealth helicopters, covert bikes seems like one more futuristic toy special operations forces can employ in battle. In any event, the prospect of something called Task Force Black is terrifying in and of itself.