This is the counterterrorist car chase of the future. Somewhere in East Africa or the southern Arabian peninsula, several years from now, an unassuming SUV drives off the road and rolls down its window.
From the passenger seat, there's a blast as a missile shoots into the air. It careens as far as 96km, in pursuit of terrorists travelling in their own SUVs, who'll never see the light truck that launched it.
This is a future that the US Special Operations Command wants as it fights the nation's shadow wars in places like Somalia and Yemen. A new solicitation seeks what it calls a "Medium Range Precision Strike System." Obscured within that anodyne phrase is an ambitious weapons system optimised for stealthy strikes with minimal footprints — for those times when a drone strike just isn't the right tool for the job.
The missile system the commandos want fits into a "light, commercially available truck." The whole thing has to be completely self-contained within the SUV, weighing no more than 408kg — as much as five 80kg dudes, sans gear — and no longer than 5m. "All cables, power sources, fire control and any other required accessories" have to be packed in as well, because the missile system has to open fire from the open road. You might want to call shotgun.
That's because the target is often on the move, as well. "The enemy vehicles could be stationary or moving commercial SUVs, pick-ups, or sedans," reads the solicitation. And they could be way, way far away: The missiles need an "objective maximum range of not less than one hundred kilometres".
If the desired missile system actually does make it into the light trucks of elite troops, it would unite the two principal tools for prosecuting the US's "shadow wars" against terrorists: missile strikes and commando raids. Usually those strikes come either from cruise missiles or overhead drones. But the Special Operations Command missile wouldn't be purely surface-to-surface. "It is highly desirable that the system be compatible with various fixed and rotary wing aircraft," the solicitation reads.
Except for the airborne part, the missile in the car follows in a long special-operations tradition: biting the very styles of the insurgents, terrorists and guerrillas the commandos hunt. Terrorists have used RPGs fired from the backs of flatbed trucks as portable artillery weapons for years. In Iraq, some jury-rigged wheelbarrows to construct mobile rocket launchers.
We're also about a decade into the trend of modifying SUVs for warfare. A Texas company specialises in inserting Kevlar, steel and polyethylene composite plates around the frames of light trucks soon to pass through dangerous territory. Others have gone the Michael Bay route, attaching a 12.7mm machine gun to a GMC Yukon.
There's nothing in the solicitation that suggests the Special Operations Command wants the SUV itself to be modified. Instead, it seems more like the vehicle is incidental — the kind of thing that commandos who don't want to attract attention can jump into, without indicating to the outside world that they're packing the kind of firepower that can wipe out a target while he's on the move from as far away as New York City is from Trenton.
An SUV is loaded onto a C-17 headed for Haiti.
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Photo: New York National Guard.