The U.S. Army Had a Whole Battalion of Armed Dune Buggies
Unique vehicles were expected to scout ahead and harass the enemy
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In the early 1980s, the U.S. Army created a unique battalion with a fleet of militarized dune buggies. The unit was supposed to scout ahead, as well as harass its enemy counterparts.
2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry and its unusual vehicles are one of the more recognizable parts of the ground combat branch’s “High Technology Light Division” experiment. The Army expected a “Quick Kill Vehicle” to be an important part of the final division design.
But the ground combat branch had few firm requirements for the vehicle. The HTLD planners only knew they wanted a vehicle that was small and fast, according to an official history.
At the same time, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL teams were testing a light vehicle of their own. The ground branch borrowed eight of these buggies to see if they might fit the bill. Chenowth Racing Products made the small vehicles for the sailing branch’s commandos. The name became synonymous with the company’s combat designs.
In October 1981, Maj. Gen. Robert Elton decided to get more Chenowths for the 9th Infantry Division—the HTLD test unit. The ground combat branch leased over 120 of the armed buggies in the end.
The vehicles got weapons and other military equipment once they reached the 9th Infantry Division’s home at Fort Lewis. The Chenowths sported machine guns, grenade launchers and even anti-tank missiles.
In 1982, the “Quick Kill Vehicle” got the less aggressive moniker of “Fast Attack Vehicle.” The Army eventually settled on “Light Attack Battalion” for its planned dune buggy contingents.
2–1 Infantry became the first — and eventually only — one of these units and got over 80 FAVs. Almost 30 of these new vehicles were armed with heavy TOW missiles, one of which is depicted in the picture above.
The Chenowths made good use of their diminutive size during trials. The vehicle’s low profile made it hard to spot and potentially difficult to hit in combat. Helicopters could also whisk the FAVs around the battlefield in large numbers. The Army’s new Black Hawk helicopter could lift two buggies, while the bigger Chinook could carry a seven at once.
However, the Chenowths were only ever meant to be “surrogates” for a final vehicle design. But the HTLD’s proponents couldn’t sell the concept.
The FAV just looked vulnerable regardless of any potential benefits. This visual stigma couldn’t have helped Elton and his team make their case. In addition, the Army worried about a possible maintenance nightmare. The Chenowths had little if anything in common with other tanks and trucks.
After four years, the ground combat branch was also tired of experimenting and wanted to declare its new motorized division ready for real combat. Finicky, specialized equipment wasn’t helping the 9th Infantry Division meet that goal.
In 1985, Congress refused to approve any more money for the buggies and other unique equipment. The following year, 2–1 Infantry traded their FAVs for new High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles — better known as “Humvees.”
The ground combat branch spent the rest of the decade trying to figure out what parts of the experiment could be salvaged. The end of the Cold War finally sealed 9th Infantry Division’s fate — and it broke up in 1991.
Still, American commandos did use improved Chenowths—called Desert Patrol Vehicles—during Operation Desert Storm. The U.K.’s elite Special Air Service also picked up a few of these combat cars.
Special operators were still using upgraded variants when they rolled back into Iraq in 2003. Special Operations Command eventually replaced them with a combination of specialized Humvees, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles.
The ground combat branch also continued to refine their plans for a wheeled fighting force. These efforts led to the creation of the Army’s Stryker brigades.
The FAV might be lost to the history books, but the Strykers have become a key part of the Pentagon’s ground forces.