The Toyota Pickup Truck Is the War Chariot of the Third World

The humble Toyota has fought — and won — in some of the world’s worst places

by KYLE MIZOKAMI

For three decades, one vehicle has dominated Third World battlefields.

Ubiquitous and incognito, chances are you’re less than a mile from one right now. You could pass one on virtually any street in any city in the world and you wouldn't think twice.

The vehicle costs a fraction as much as a modern main battle tank. In fact, you can buy 266 of them for the cost of just one tank. Plus it’s more dependable than a tank—and easier to maintain.

It’s not produced by the United States, Russia, France, China or any of the major arms exporters. It’s made by Japan, an avowedly pacifist country that prohibits the export of arms abroad … particularly to Third World combat zones.

From the deserts of the African Maghreb to the mountains of Afghanistan, warriors from tribesmen to American Special Forces have chosen the Toyota pickup truck as their unarmored personnel carrier of choice.

Syrian rebels with homemade truck-mounted rocket. David Axe photo. A machine gun-armed Toyota belonging to an Afghan security firm. U.S. Army photo

The unlikely war machine

There are lots of reasons why Toyota pickups have become the primary combat vehicles of the Third World.

Poor countries are saturated with light pickup trucks. Many of them were sold new in developed nations, driven for a while then sold abroad. They’re on hand, available to be snatched up by local militias as needed.

They’re easily acquired, legally or otherwise. Often they are even given to armed groups by foreign governments as “nonlethal aid.” The U.S. State Department has donated pickups to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Pickup trucks’ mobility makes them ideal for Third World warfare. Four-wheel-drives can tackle almost any terrain. Light trucks don't weigh much, allowing them to cross weak bridges and fragile roads that would be impassable to armored vehicles weighing tens of tons.

The speed of a pickup is handy on the battlefield, helping fighters overcome those other hallmarks of Third World warfare: bad intelligence, weak leadership, poor planning.

Pickup trucks require no special logistical support; any country with gas stations—that is, every country on Earth—can support them. They don’t guzzle fuel like heavy military vehicles and they don’t require constant maintenance. If a pickup breaks down, parts probably can be found. And if they can’t, well, it’s just a pickup truck. Park it. Walk away.

Pickups don’t require special training to operate. Unlike armored vehicles, anyone who already knows how to drive a car can drive a truck with a machine gun bolted on the back.

They call that a “technical,” by the way.

The lack of armor on a pickup truck isn’t really a big problem. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. In the Third World, most fighting ends once it’s clear that one side is stronger than the other.

A pickup truck can hustle a heavy machine gun or a squad of armed men to the battlefield. And if the odds look bad, it can just as quickly drive off.

Chadian DIS technical escorts U.N. workers in December 2011. UNHCR photo

The Toyota War

Between 1978 and 1987, Chad and Libya fought a series of clashes over a of slice of Chadian desert territory known as the Aouzou Strip. The war sputtered on for nine years, but what finally turned the tide was a radical stroke of genius, what today we could call an asymmetrical response to the problem of the Libyan army.

The Libyan military campaigned in Chad like the conventional force it was, with Soviet-made T-62 tanks, armored personnel carriers, modern artillery and attack jets. By contrast, the Chadian army was a ragtag force that could never hope to field the same firepower as the Libyans.

The Chadians and their French allies knew there was no chance of turning N’Djamena’s army into a mechanized force equal to the Libyans. So they didn't try.

Instead, the Chadians outfitted themselves with 400 Toyota pickup trucks. Modified for sandy conditions, the Toyotas each could carry half a dozen fighters, as long as comfort wasn't a real concern.

Many of the trucks were fitted with machine guns, automatic grenade launchers and MILAN anti-tank guided missiles. Designed by Germany and France to kill Soviet tanks on the European battlefield, MILANs could destroy Libyan armored vehicles at ranges of up to 2,000 yards.

Light, long-range and mounting powerful weapons, the Chadian trucks were the modern equivalent of Apache warriors on horses and armed with Winchester rifles.

The Chadians used a combination of diversionary tactics and raids to demoralize and defeat Libyan troops. Columns of Chadian army Toyotas would appear in one direction, drawing the attention of the Libyans. The main Chadian force would then approach from the opposite direction and attack with missiles, destroying the previously invulnerable Libyan tanks.

At the Battle of Fada, 4,000 to 5,000 Chadian troops in Toyota pickup trucks defeated a Libyan armored brigade, killing 784 Libyans and their allies. Nearly 100 Libyan tanks and more than 30 armored personnel carriers were destroyed in the fighting. Chadian losses were a mere 18 troops and three Toyotas.

Chad scored a similar victory against the Libyan air base at Ouadi Doum. The war sputtered to a close after the Chadians, overconfident by their admittedly impressive string of victories, counter-invaded Libya. The Libyans eventually beat back the Chadian incursion and declared victory. But the Aouzou Strip remained part of Chad.

The introduction of Toyota pickup trucks is considered so influential that the last year of the conflict is popularly known as “The Toyota War.”

Somali security detail in October 2011. Norwegian Refugee Council photo

Somalia

In 1992, Somalia suffered a devastating famine. The United States led a multinational force to protect the flow of humanitarian aid. This provoked a clash with Somali warlords.

As U.S. and allied troops fanned out across the country, they noticed a large number of technicals, mostly Toyotas, modified to carry heavy weapons such as machine guns, light cannon and recoilless rifles. There were silly rumors that the auto manufacturer, for some unexplained reason, had given the trucks to the Somali warlords.

It was in Somalia that the armed Toyota pickup—or any armed pickup, for that matter—earned the moniker “technical.” The term is thought to be short for “technical assistance,” a service bought from warlords by aid organizations, often in the form of armed Toyota trucks to ensure that humanitarian aid reached its destination.

Friction between peacekeepers and Somali warlords sparked repeated skirmishes and ultimately the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993. American forces battled the Somali technicals, the heaviest firepower the militias could muster.

Afghan and NATO troops at Camp Shaheen, Afghanistan on Aug. 28, 2010. ISAF Joint Command photo

Afghanistan

After 9/11, U.S. Special Forces quickly deployed to Afghanistan but found themselves without suitable transportation. They needed lightweight, highly mobile vehicles capable of operating with a minimum of support. The rest of the U.S. military was the last place in the world to look for help with that.

So the Special Forces went shopping … in Toyota showrooms in North Carolina and Kentucky. Toyota Tacoma trucks were modified for Afghanistan by adding roll cages, machine gun mounts, bumper winches, brush guards and antenna mounts. Infrared headlamps replaced standard headlamps. Some vehicles even received Blue Force Trackers, the U.S. Army’s digital position-reporting system.

Special Forces liked the Tacomas because they were, in their own way, stealthy.

Toyota pickup trucks have the benefit of not looking very military, which is handy for blending in with civilian traffic. The gasoline-engine models bought off American lots were quieter than the diesel engines used by local trucks. The trucks were made even stealthier with the removal of door buzzers, seat belt warnings and virtually all lights. The last thing anyone in combat needed was a warning that he didn't have his seat belt on, or an overhead light automatically turning on in the dark.

BUY ‘The Gun’

Special Forces used Toyotas on the battlefield for several years, until the increased proliferation of Improvised Explosive Devices forced them into military-grade mine-protected vehicles. But Afghan troops still use Toyotas by the thousands.

The Toyota pickup should have no place on the modern battlefield. It’s seemingly the very opposite of a modern vehicle of war. It’s unarmored, unarmed in its original format, inexpensive and didn't originate from some billion-dollar development program run by Lockheed Martin.

And yet for those very reasons, the Toyota thrives on battlefields in poor countries. The civilian truck has struck an ideal balance between convenience, economic reality and the demands of local terrain.

The proliferation of the light pickup truck in Third World wars is a reminder that people will use what they can get their hands on to get a job done—and that adaptability is one of the most important traits of any weapon.

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