US Recon Marines testing MMX electric enduro bikes

U.S. Marine Recon Platoon Trials Zero MMX Electric Motorcycles for Future Deployments
Over the past year, a specialized platoon within the U.S. Marine Corps has been rigorously testing a state-of-the-art, all-electric motorcycle designed to revolutionize how the Marines conduct ground reconnaissance. The 1st Platoon of Bravo Company, part of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, is set to incorporate eight new Zero MMX battery-powered bikes into its arsenal. These motorcycles will be field-tested overseas next year during a shipboard deployment with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Gidget Fuentes, USNI News, reports.
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A U.S. Marine assigned to Reconnaissance Company, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, rides an MMX motorcycle enroute to a raid site during the ground interoperability exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 25, 2023 (Picture source: US Marine Corps)

The platoon has already exposed these cutting-edge motorcycles to a diverse range of environments, from training exercises at Camp Pendleton to the Mojave and Colorado deserts in Twentynine Palms, California, and Yuma, Arizona. The testing isn't limited to arid landscapes; the bikes have also been taken through cooler, damp areas in Washington and Alaska. Capt. Thomas Zahn, the 1st Platoon commander slated to lead the 15th MEU's reconnaissance team, disclosed, "In the Philippines, we’ll test them in the super-wet jungle environment.”

Enhanced tactical capabilities

According to Marine Corps personnel, when these electric bikes are paired with the platoon’s newly acquired ultralight tactical vehicles (ULTVs), it extends the unit's operational capabilities significantly. The Zero MMX motorcycles are considered an excellent complement to the Polaris MRZR Alpha, the new ULTV that will soon replace the current utility task vehicles in the Marine Corps.

Cpl. Hollis Balenger commented on the new motorcycle's capabilities, saying, "It can fill a pretty good gap for us in terms of doing ground reconnaissance. With these bikes, we can extend our range even further before continuing the mission on foot.”

Low-profile, high-impact operations

Sgt. Santino Simolo added that in combat, a pair of Marines could cover an extensive area more discreetly with these bikes compared to using “four trucks in a convoy or two trucks," highlighting the bike's low operational signature.

The Zero MMX’s key advantage is its electric drivetrain, powered by two Z-Force lithium-ion batteries, making it both agile and capable of enduring rough terrains.

A history of motorcycles in the U.S. military

Motorcycles have been an integral part of U.S. military operations for over a century, evolving from the gas-powered Harley-Davidson “J” models used during World War I and World War II, to modern, more environmentally friendly options. The shift to electric motorcycles, led by California-based Zero Motorcycles, began around 2006.

Mike Jackson, a former Army Green Beret and the owner and president of MacGyver Solutions, Inc., stated, "The Zero MMX has proven that there is a role in the military for electric vehicles. It provides the range and reliability required to conduct current missions.”

Training and other employment

North Carolina-based MacGyver Solutions has been responsible for offering new equipment training and maintenance instruction to units equipped with the Zero MMX. Apart from the 1st Platoon, other units that have received these motorcycles include the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Pendleton and the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at Twentynine Palms, California.

The Zero MMX electric bikes are positioned to redefine how the U.S. Marine Corps carries out reconnaissance and surveillance missions, providing a sustainable and versatile addition to their toolkit.

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U.S. Marine assigned to Reconnaissance Company, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, starts his MMX motorcycle in preparation for a raid during the ground interoperability exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, July 24, 2023 (Picture source: US Marine Corps)

Battery flexibility and hot-swapping for sustained operations

The Zero MMX electric motorcycles boast an impressive battery system designed for maximum flexibility in field operations. Equipped with two 3.6-kW batteries, operators have the choice of using a single battery for a lighter vehicle or both for an extended range. According to MacGyver Solutions, the company behind the bike's training and maintenance, these batteries can be "hot-swapped" with a support vehicle, allowing for prolonged usage.

During training exercises with Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) units, Recon Marines successfully field-charged their Zero MMX batteries using light-armored vehicles. Additionally, the company has developed a solar panel charging system, although this option is yet to be evaluated by the Marine Corps.

Diverse mission applications

Captain John Bender, Bravo Company commander, expressed enthusiasm for the MMX’s capabilities: “We’ve been using them for whatever mission we can.” The company currently possesses 16 of these bikes. Operators have undergone certification and completed courses on tactical operation and handling across varying terrains.

“The battalion is actively working on procuring more MMX bikes,” Bender stated, emphasizing that these bikes would be useful in situations where larger vehicles like Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs) would be impractical.

Transport and tactical deployment

The MMX’s lightweight design makes it highly portable. Cpl. Hollis Balenger revealed that mounting brackets have been fashioned on the front of the MRZR ULTVs, allowing for the bikes to be transported easily. “The bikes can be popped off the MRZRs to scout ahead or to assess large danger areas," he said.

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Marines assigned to Reconnaissance Company, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and British Royal Marine Commandos assigned to 40 Commando, currently attached to the 15th MEU, drive a Polaris MRZR to a raid during the ground interoperability exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 24, 2023 (Picture source: US Marine Corps)

Expanding tactical horizons

The Zero MMX's size and agility allow for its use in a variety of mission types. Sgt. Santino Simolo explained that the MMX could function independently or in conjunction with larger ULTVs for satellite patrols. Whether scouting ahead of a convoy or serving as a communications relay, the MMX enhances the unit’s operational reach.

Advantage in challenging environments

According to Capt. Thomas Zahn, the electric bikes may offer significant advantages in dense jungle environments where visibility from aerial reconnaissance is limited. "Sending a small team on MMX bikes is less risky and can provide valuable overwatch," Zahn remarked.

Electric bikes: pros and cons

The Zero MMX offers a variable range depending on its operational conditions. Cpl. Balenger stated that in milder terrains, new batteries could last up to 80 miles or more. In contrast, Sgt. Simolo noted that under harsh conditions, the batteries could be depleted in as little as 20 minutes.

Forward-looking applications

The MMX is also being considered for innovative tactical applications like the "scout leader" concept, which would involve deploying the bike forward in two-man elements, possibly along with snipers or a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC).

With their lightweight design, adaptability, and cutting-edge battery technology, the Zero MMX electric motorcycles are set to become an invaluable asset in the U.S. Marine Corps' tactical toolkit. As the Marines continue to evaluate and integrate these bikes, they open the door to a new era of operational versatility.

The weight factor

The performance of Zero MMX electric bikes is significantly influenced by the operator's weight, according to Sgt. Santino Simolo. Unlike lightweight Motocross racers, Recon Marines carry an extensive amount of gear, affecting the battery's efficiency. "You kill the battery pretty good, pretty easily," Simolo noted, highlighting one of the downsides of using electric bikes in military operations.

Simplified operations, maintenance

Zero MMX electric bikes offer a less complicated riding experience, with no gears, clutch, or kickstarter to worry about. The battery pack is situated under the seat, slightly elevating the bike's center of gravity. "The maintenance is less, mostly changing the lube chain oil and replacing tires and parts that degrade with wear," Simolo added.

Instant power, limited torque control

The MMX models start quickly and operate quietly, providing immediate power and speed. Cpl. Hollis Balenger mentioned the difficulty in adjusting to the "all or nothing" torque control, particularly for those accustomed to riding gas bikes.

Design flaws and annoyances

Marines have pointed out a few design limitations. For instance, the front suspension needs improvement. Additionally, if the bike is dropped or crashes, it cuts off the engine. Another issue is the LED display shutting off when the running lights are deactivated—posing a problem during night reconnaissance missions when battery level monitoring is crucial.

Lower heat signature, no fire risk

Electric bikes have the advantage of carrying less heat compared to gas-powered bikes, a critical factor in avoiding enemy detection. "They don't get as hot, reducing their visibility on thermal optics," Simolo stated. The electric nature of the MMX also negates the risk of fire if the bike is laid down in foliage, a concern with gas-powered bikes.

Logistics and maintenance on the field

Maintenance at the operator level is relatively simple. Marines have successfully performed tasks like tire and rim replacements and chain adjustments. In extended missions, support vehicles like MRZRs or ULTVs can carry spare parts.

Air transport and future testing

During training, MMX bikes have been transported using various aircraft like the CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters, MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, and Army CH-47 Chinooks. They have even been successfully air-dropped from a C-130 Hercules, which Capt. John Bender described as "huge" in validating the bikes' potential for reconnaissance and direct-action raids.

Future considerations

As of now, ULTVs are still in the testing phase. However, Capt. Thomas Zahn indicated that they will be tested before deployment. Bravo Company has also been working on a specialized tool kit for extended bike missions, which includes essentials like zip ties and hose clamps.

The Zero MMX electric bikes bring a mix of advantages and limitations to military operations. As the Marines continue to refine their use and address existing challenges, the bikes are increasingly showing their potential to revolutionize mobility and versatility on the battlefield.

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U.S. Marines assigned to Reconnaissance Company, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and British Royal Marines Commandos assigned to 40 Commando, currently attached to the 15th MEU, prepare to depart for a raid during the ground interoperability exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, July 24, 2023 (Picture source: US Marine Corps)

Upcoming naval missions with new additions

This fall, Bravo Company, along with the rest of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), is integrating electric motorcycles and Utility Task Vehicles (ULTVs) into their operations. As these additions have not yet been deployed at sea, they will necessitate adjustments in logistical considerations for the MEU’s aircrews and the Navy’s amphibious ships. "It’s just working through the other parts of the MEU to ensure tactical sense in how we’re loading," said Capt. Thomas Zahn.

Addressing hazmat concerns and corrosion

While at sea, Recon Marines are considering the risk of corrosion affecting the bikes and batteries. The lithium-ion batteries used in the MMX motorcycles also pose potential hazardous material issues. "We’ll probably be figuring that out soon," mentioned Cpl. Hollis Balenger.

Successful field tests lead to expansion

A successful field test at the Twentynine Palms desert base has led to the initiative expanding to include Charlie Company. During the test, Recon Marines were able to operate independently for a couple of weeks, relying solely on the resources they had. "Any kind of sustainment was just off the vehicles," Sgt. Santino Simolo said, highlighting the unit’s self-sufficiency and flexibility.

Lessons learned in off-road operations

The field test also provided valuable insights into the benefits of using off-road vehicles like dirt bikes. When other tactical vehicles were stuck, the MMX bikes proved their worth. "We’d change the route to accommodate them," Simolo explained.

Future development and optimism

Bravo Company and the 1st Recon Battalion are continually refining how to use the electric bikes "as safely and as efficiently as possible," according to Zahn. Recon Marines are hopeful that the MMX will become a program of record. "This whole program is incredibly young," Balenger noted, adding that the direction the program takes from here is an exciting prospect.

Recent exercises and interoperability

The Marines have already been putting the electric motorcycles to the test in various exercises, including at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. They also conducted a ground interoperability exercise involving both U.S. Marines and British Royal Marine Commandos, demonstrating the global collaborative potential of these new additions to the battlefield.

The incorporation of electric motorcycles and ULTVs into Marine operations marks a significant step toward modernizing military mobility. As Bravo Company and the 15th MEU prepare for their sea missions, they will continue to address challenges and refine tactics to make the most of these innovative technologies.

Defense News October 2023