In the old days of humanitarian intervention, international charities would hire private contractors to escort their shipments using 4×4 pickups with machine guns mounted on the beds. Since a lot of humanitarian groups don’t like to be seen paying for stuff like that, they’d write off these vehicle escorts as “technical expenses,” coining the term “Technical” for any 4×4 pickup with a mounted crew-served weapon. So the legend goes.
Since then, rugged compact pickups have dominated the “technical” game. Notoriously, Toyota is “good for Jihad,”and the Hilux/Tacoma is the “..vehicular equivalent of the AK-47… ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.” But improvised fighting vehicles and vehicle weaponizations actually go back much further than the modern 4×4 technical, and vehicles-as-improvised-weapons have taken many forms. Al Capone and the “Chicago Outfit” famously used armored cars with stealthy designs that looked little different from other cars on the road. Modern VIPs, crime lords, and executive security services purchase custom vehicles with ballistic protection, run flats, beefed up engines and suspension, and other protective, tactical, and performance goodies. Militaries and militias have improvised many variants of “gun trucks,” and have sometimes beefed up protection with “hillbilly armor.” Mexican cartels have taken to fabbing custom armor, ballistic windows, gun ports, and sometimes turrets onto Chevy Suburbans or other suitable civilian vehicles to make their “narco-tanks.” Militias do it. Some Kurdish Peshmerga got attention recently for their improvised fighting vehicles . Some of them look pretty useless, but who are we to judge one of the groups that have been fighting Daesh from the jump?
It goes lower-tech too. Periodically, somebody somewhere commandeers a bulldozer, front loader, or other suitable piece of construction equipment and spends a few hours wreaking havoc on City Hall, or the ex-girlfriend’s house, or a suburban food court, or whatever… In most cases, construction equipment is commandeered on an opportunistic basis as-is. This leaves the attacker exposed in the unarmored crew cab of an unwieldy vehicle lucky to hit 30 mph with the AC off, so the impacts are usually pretty limited. This is not to say a hijacked bulldozer can’t knock down a few buildings before they’re stopped, but most people capable of a brisk walk will escape. Cops capable of briskly trotting up to bust a window and deploy pepper gas, or briskly firing their service weapons, have briskly done so on several occasions.
In a few cases, people have upped the ante by mounting armor, gun ports, or other tactical enhancements on construction equipment, making for a DIY “Killdozer”, and a more interesting day for law enforcement. In a couple notorious cases, individuals have stolen proper military armored vehicles and went full-on “Grant Theft Auto,” but this is far from a trend. “Ram & Grabs” or other vehicle breach robberies have gotten more notice in recent years. These usually involve thieves using vehicles to ram into jewelry stores, banks, or ATM kiosks. Sometimes they use the same vehicle to escape with the loot, and sometimes the breach vehicle is a throwaway. Nowadays the smart ones are typically going to use a throwaway breach vehicle and switch car. There is also a related method involving use of vehicles to wrench ATMs from their secure anchors. When done professionally, this can be impressive. If done less professionally, it can be fun to watch. Apparently these guys were inspired to combine all the elements: stolen forklift, stolen truck, stolen ATM, and the hearts of warrior-poets. Cases like these have resulted in a kind of arms race between vulnerable retail facilities and ram robbers.
Then of course we’ve got the Daesh dipshits who just love running people down with cars as of late. In this blog we’ll spare you the videos of that stuff unless there’s a legitimate purpose for analysis. The Nice Attack put this on everybody’s radar recently, but it’s been going on for a few years. In a trend as unsurprising as it is unfortunate, extremists have been weaponizing otherwise nondescript vehicles more frequently. Daesh in particular has encouraged its sympathizers to use this brutally low-tech method in environments where VBIEDs (aka car bombs) are harder to assemble without getting noticed. Vehicle weaponizations have been making some police and security people nervous. In an interview for my research on DIY guns, one public servant from Australia who preferred to keep her identity confidential, said that improvised vehicle weaponizations are one of the top domestic terror threats that worry security folks over there. This was only a few weeks before the Nice attack.
Within their own “territory,” Daesh has easy access to explosives and they don’t need to be so clandestine. So they’ve been making improvised fighting vehicles (IFVs) and these DIY suicide trucks to blow past checkpoints. They’re weird, but they do the job. It’s possible to stop them but you’re going to want an anti-tank guided missile. (I’m assuming these Kurdish fighters are using an FGM-148 or M47 for that job, maybe a reader with anti-armor experience can clarify for me…). These Mad Max suicide trucks only have to be armored well enough to render small arms ineffective outside their explosive kill range, and they’ll run them top speed right at you. By the time these suckers are close enough to disable with accurate small arms fire, they’re probably closer than you ever wanted them to get.
And why wouldn’t they do this stuff? It’s ridiculously easy to weaponize vehicles. Cars are everywhere. They’re not suspicious to have, nor are they difficult to buy or steal. You can’t overregulate them because they are an essential component of transportation pretty much everywhere. Anything with enough speed or mass is going to do damage, but even without explosives, civilian vehicles are easy to quietly customize for greater impact. In the States (and many other countries) it’s common to put “grill guards,” “bull bars,” or “roo bars” on cars and trucks. These are great because they protect the front end from damage when working or off-roading, they provide some protection from a moderate animal strike, and you can mount accessories like lights, winches, and tow hooks to them.
Since everything cool has to have a trade-off, these beefed up grill guards have gotten some attention for being bad news on pedestrians. In a low-profile vehicle like a small sports car, if a pedestrian gets hit they’ll usually go over the windshield. Unless you’re Johnny Knoxville it’s probably not your best day at the office, but it’s still better than going under. With higher-profile vehicles, pedestrians are more likely to get plowed under, and injuries are worse. With grill guards or other front end add-ons, the force is concentrated, and the higher and flatter front profile of an SUV or truck is more likely to take a person underneath. Some research has found grill guards to be an enhanced hazard for pedestrians. The University of Adelaide found that if a child is struck by a vehicle, the injuries may be 10-15 times worse with grill guards than without them. A German study found that 95% of children struck by a vehicle without grill guards at 20 mph would be expected to survive, but with grill guards injuries were life threatening at speeds as low as 10-12 mph. Now, imagine some nutjob taking it to the next level with a modern re-boot of the “Scythed Chariot,”or some spikey weaponized version of the old “Cowcatcher”. These kinds of vehicle weaponizations could really do some damage under the right circumstances.
Of course, the classic solution is to ban them for everyone. In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere, they now sell cosmetic grill guards made of plastic. The softer plastic deforms on impact, theoretically reducing damage to pedestrians, but also making the grill guards less effective for their legitimate purpose of protecting the vehicle and mounting load-bearing accessories. Good luck mandating plastic grill guards in Texas, folks. And while banning grill guards might do some generalized public safety good at the cost of consumer freedom and the legitimate uses for these accessories, a ban won’t stop a motivated vehicle attacker for a second. This kind of customization is easy enough on a DIY basis using tools and materials that can’t be banned. Even in the Wild West United States we’ve got vehicle safety codes, but the American individualist in me says that the expected benefit should be balanced against the costs to consumer freedom, legitimate uses, and potential to save the same number of lives with less-invasive or inconvenient policies. When Jimbo in Wyoming reluctantly removes the grill guard from his ranch truck only to see some Daesh guy on the news the next day plowing down a crowd in an Escalade outfitted with very illegal spikes all over it in spite of the ban, he’s not going to be supporting the next bright idea to prohibit a well-liked product for counterterrorism purposes.
Regardless of political optics, as a security strategy a ban on these kinds of vehicle weaponizations is pretty much pointless and everybody knows it. The best the laws could do is annoy legitimate consumers while making things slightly less convenient for the kind of attacker who is already willing to smash up a building or run down innocent pedestrians. Vehicle attackers don’t exactly seem risk-averse, they accept a clear risk of being injured, killed, or captured in the process. Most of these jackasses are probably willing to learn some basic welding. If they lack the patience, they can just rent, steal, or hijack a bigger truck and use it as-is.
Making it more difficult for everyone to get vehicles would obviously be a rubbish method of preventing unpredictable attacks by a tiny number of isolated extremists. Protecting critical facilities from vehicular attack makes sense, but protecting every post office and town hall against a tractor trailer would impose huge costs for uncertain benefits. Sure, we can (and should) harden facilities with bollards, walls, and other “vehicle arrest devices,” but they’ll just attack somewhere else that isn’t hardened. You can try remote “kill switches” on new vehicles so police can disable any vehicle remotely. This is apparently being discussed in the EU, but these can surely be disabled or spoofed, and it doesn’t protect against the incredible number of cars already on the road without kill switches. There is also a potential for unintended consequences. The same systems that enable police to remotely shut down a vehicle, may also allow a hacker to control it, turning a formerly high-risk vehicle attack into a low-risk hack.
Plus, a lot of people just won’t want to buy a vehicle that can be remotely disabled. (Remote disabling is a consumer appeal issue in other areas too, like “Smart Guns…”) In an early 2000s episode of The Sopranos, a paranoid Tony removed “that OnStar shit,” from his SUV. Turns out Tony’s impulse was prescient. Vehicle navigation and support services OnStar and TomTom have caught criticism from consumers in recent years for re-selling client driving and location information to data brokers, or providing client data to police. Most of the time, police use the “anonymized” GPS data to plan traffic safety improvements or the placement of speed traps and drunk driving checkpoints, but in some cases the service providers help police track, wiretap, or disable peoples’ private vehicles. Obviously, it’s only a matter of time until everybody’s driving behavior is comprehensively re-sold to car insurance companies, a trend that has already begun with company-owned fleet vehicles. Instructions on how to “jailbreak” these tracking systems circulate online, and lots of people disconnect in violation of the Terms of Service, since it can be borderline Kafka-esque to do it with consent of the service provider.
So, like most bulk collection and surveillance, remote tracking and kill-switches works a lot better for monitoring average consumers than preventing attacks by criminals or terrorists who are motivated to avoid surveillance. It’s still easy enough to get vehicles without these tracking systems, disable them legally or illegally, or possibly spoof them with inaccurate data.
As soon as “kill switch” vehicles are mandated, there will be videos and tutorials circulating on how to jail break them. We can (and probably should) erect ad hoc barricades and armed checkpoints as needed for protection in specific target-rich situations, but ultimately it’s impossible to protect all vulnerable facilities and large public assemblies from vehicles when you’ve got millions and millions of vehicles available all over the world, and the populations who’d want to use them for indiscriminate attacks are very small, very motivated, generally unpredictable, and able to choose their own targets and timing.
We don’t politicize vehicle attacks the way we politicize guns or other weapons because everybody has cars, or uses cars, and most people intuitively understand that cars are so common, necessary, and hard to control that you’re not going to prevent motivated criminals or terrorists with background checks, stricter driver’s licensing requirements, or other “supply side” regulatory tactics. A “War on Cars” is obviously not in the cards because the cars already won. There are over 1 billion cars and trucks on the road today. And cars are an industrial triumph: they weren’t possible until prior developments in factory production of firearms, textiles, bicycles, and agricultural machinery, but the modern automobile is today’s perfect co-efficient of sophistication and mass production. That is to say, automobiles are probably the most sophisticated industrial product that is mass-produced and distributed around the world in such large quantity.
Other products like smartphones or guns are manufactured in similar or greater volume, but they’re easier to make. More sophisticated items like airplanes and military vehicles are factory-produced, but in lesser quantity. Cars had already won the “supply game” by the third industrial revolution, and the fourth industrial revolution, changes things only insofar as it guarantees that not only can you almost certainly procure a factory-made vehicle for nefarious purposes if desired, you also have a greater capacity to customize it than ever before. Major manufacturers are now using additive processes (aka “3D printing) to make vehicular components, and the technology is expected to speed factory production, increase design flexibility and product customizability, decrease manufacturer risk, simplify logistics chains, and improve environmental sustainability.
There are companies now designing and producing fully 3D printed cars, some of which look pretty sweet. But that fancy 3D printing stuff is really just a recent technologic flourish to solidify the overall trend. Anybody with typical shop tools for welding, machining, and mechanics work can make a wide variety of customizations. Some skillful hobbyists build improvised motor vehicles from scratch with scrap parts. You probably know people capable of quietly constructing an attack vehicle or improvised fighting vehicle on a tight budget if they were challenged to the task and legalities were no issue. Maybe you are one of those people. The point is that the fourth industrial revolution makes improvised fighting vehicles and vehicle weaponizations easier than ever before, and it costs a lot more to protect against them than it costs to build or use them.