Charge of the light brigade: Army Parachute Regiment trial electric bikes

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It’s a frigid November evening and I’m standing in a muddy field in the middle of rural France, as diesel generators shake the air around me. The area is abuzz with activity as military vehicles move troops in anticipation of an attack.

Just as I wonder what I’ve got myself into, the side of a truck is thrown open and a pair of electric motorcycles – still in civvy spec – peer out, a stark juxtaposition against the rest of the fossil-fuelled fleet. These are Sur-ron Light Bees, and for the first time in more than a decade, the British Army is experimenting with two wheels.

The scene immediately draws a number of parallels – maroon berets, lightweight motorcycles and a rugged off-road capability. Eighty years ago, wartime necessitated the introduction of the Royal Enfield WD/RE ‘Flying Flea’ and the Welbike, which were parachuted into occupied Europe, providing a means for airborne and assault troops to transmit messages.

A rear view of the Surron Light Bee

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This trial was the brainchild of Captain Dan Lauder, himself an ardent motorcyclist and the man responsible for delivering operational capability to 16 Air Assault Brigade, the UK’s rapidly deployable expeditionary force.

Spotting an opportunity, Lauder set about procuring a pair of suitable machines – the Surrons winning favour for their low weight, minimal heat and sound signature, and relative affordability. Powered by a removal lithium-ion battery pack (which can be charged in under 3.5 hours for a claimed range of up to 60 miles), the £4495 Sur-ron makes 6kW from a compact motor.

On paper, it’s not a lot, but given that the bike weighs just 47kg, and all 39Nm of torque is available from go, it accelerates rapidly to a top speed of 45mph.

A soldier rides the Surron off-road in France

“The experiment aims to understand two things” says Lauder. “How we could employ bikes tactically (and what advantages do they offer over other vehicles) and what are the implications for supplying them with power and interacting with other in-service vehicles.”

“One of the main reasons that we are interested in using motorbikes is because of the need for air portability and, in particular, airdrop,” he explains. “The good thing about such a small vehicle is that you can get it in the back of helicopters; you can undersling it from a helicopter; you can get several in the back of a plane, and then also, potentially you’d be able to drop it from the back of a plane under a parachute.

“So, it gives you a whole load of options to be able to get mobility in an expeditionary sense forward, in a way that a jeep or even a quad bike just can’t do. So that’s the main reason why we, as an air assault brigade, are interested in it, because it has what we call good strategic mobility. You can get a motorbike quite far, quite quickly, relatively easily.”

Two decades ago, much of the Army would have agreed, but the noughties saw the demise of the general service motorcycle due to safety concerns and the wider availability of electronic communications. In 2010, the last remaining models were de-fleeted and two wheels became the reserve of the special forces and foreign armies.

Preparing to ride the Surron Light Bee

A different approach

This is the one of the British Army’s first electric motorcycle trials, and it comes just two months after Colonel Simon Ridgway OBE, Assistant Head Plans for Ground Manoeuvre Capability, announced plans to electrify the battlefield over a 15-year period.

Lauder believes that motorcycles very much have a role within this remit.

“Motorcycles have been in military use ever since they were invented. So, what we’re doing is nothing new – what’s new is the electrification side of it and the opportunities that presents.

“They’re low signature, because they’re electric,” he continues. “They’re not noisy, they don’t make much thermal signature and they can be used in a way where a petrol engine would just give your position away.

The quiet electric motors can have benefits on the battlefield

“So, they’d be good for recce, for infiltration, but also for communications between positions where you need to pass messages on the man, like we’ve done for hundreds of years, but in a situation where electronic communication is jammed or intercepted.”

While technology was to blame for the demise of service motorcycles – the Bowman radio superseding the humble dispatch rider – now, in a world where compromised comms is a constant threat, motorcycle messengers could make a comeback.

Brigadier Nick Cowley OBE, Brigade Commander 16 Air Assault, says: “As we need to be able to fight in battlefields where we’re going to have periods of denied communications, we need to have the maximum number of ways of getting messages around the battlefield to make sure we can still manoeuvre.

“We’re always going to have live forces on the ground, so the more ways I’ve got of projecting force, the better, and what the bikes bring us is the ability to get more troops across more distance, quicker. Having seen them in action, I think they are a very credible military capability.”

Planning an off-road route for the Surrons

On the ground Leaving the HQ behind, I venture out on to the vast training area. Dressed in full fighting order and stormtrooper-esque white helmets, the riders cut intimidating figures. Arriving alongside another soldier, one rider whipped a map from his webbing and began tracing lines and whispering furiously.

This was just one of the ways in which the motorcycles had been implemented so far on the exercise, rider Corporal James Duncan explains: “So far, they’ve been used in the distribution of up-to-date maps. We’ve used them to rectify a few communications issues that we’ve had, too, and they’re also very well suited to reconnaissance.”

His fellow rider, Colour Sergeant James Macintyre, added: “I could also see these bikes employed for the CO and the Ops officer, to confirm arcs between company locations on a main defensive area. They’re quiet and quick enough that what would take a good couple of hours on foot would take less than half the time on a bike. You’re only going to win the battle quicker.”

Capt Lauder continues: “If you’re fast, you’re light, you’re agile, you’re less likely to be seen, less likely to come into contact with the enemy, and less likely to be decisively engaged. So that is one of the fundamental reasons behind the use of motorcycles.

Rear shock on the Surron electric

“It might appear that there is a greater risk, because you’re so exposed and vulnerable. But actually, your mitigation is speed, not protection. And that’s the trade-off that we’re exploring.”

Range anxiety The relatively low range of electrics is the biggest concern. While the manufacturer claims up to 60 miles, the reality is far less.

“If ridden hard, we get 25 miles, but if ridden conservatively we can double that,” says Corporal Duncan. And that’s loaded up with just 100kg of soldier, protection and his weapon, and no other equipment, such as a radio.

“The biggest thing is power management,” adds Lauder. “There’s a generator here that’s powering everything that we’re doing. We need to figure out a system whereby we can plug them in, but not be limited by their range.

Military motorcycles are not a new thing in the UK

“How they’ll used tactically, we’re yet to see. But I think power is going to be one of the biggest constraints.”

The negative effects on lithium batteries from cold temperatures and altitude – battery depletion and fire risk – are also concerns. But for all of the challenges, it’s important to remember that real-world implementation will only come after significant development.

“The ultimate goal is for me to be able to take the decision to my superiors and present a case,” says Lauder. “Clearly, I think there is a place for motorcycles; their lightness and their mobility is something we can exploit in a way that we haven’t for a long time, and we’ve forgotten how to do, this is all part of that – reinvigorating that understanding.”

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Laura Thomson

By Laura Thomson

Senior Writer, resident Southerner, always up for an adventure. Fan of Austrian over-engineering.