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The Great Toyota War: Birthplace of the Technical

The Great Toyota War was the birthplace of the “technical” – light-weight Toyota Hilux and Land Cruiser variants that are used in underdeveloped countries for troop transport and combat.

In 480 BC, the Battle of Thermopylae took place in Greece. Hordes of Persians under the banner of Xerxes the Great disembarked on the shores of Northern Greece only to be met by King Leonidas of Sparta and roughly 7,000 of his men. To put it bluntly, the odds against Leonidas were insane. Historians estimate the strength of the Persians to be upwards of 70,000 – 300,000. I am not a betting man, but if I were at the time, I probably would have wagered my ancient-Greece-equivalent to live savings that Leonidas would not be making it home for kebabs and baklava ever again.

Although the Spartans lost that battle, their military precision at Thermopylae is revered in the books of history – precision executed while wearing sandals and capes. For three days the Spartan led Greeks dominated by utilizing a piece of key terrain known as “the hot gates” – a narrow pass along the coast that forced the Persians to funnel into a Spartan meat grinder. This battle was a prime example of how an underdog unit can withstand unspeakable odds with a bit of tactical creativity – a proper segue into the Toyota Wars.  

The Great Toyota War: Birthplace of the Technical
Poster showing different Technical variants. Courtesy: Jack Hurley @loudribs

The Libyan and Chad conflict in the late 1980s was the birth of the “technical” – light-weight civilian pickup trucks and land rover variants that are commonly used in underdeveloped countries for troop transport and combat.

In 480 BC, the Battle of Thermopylae took place in Greece. Hordes of Persians under the banner of Xerxes the Great disembarked on the shores of Northern Greece only to be met by King Leonidas of Sparta and roughly 7,000 of his men. To put it bluntly, the odds against Leonidas were insane. Historians estimate the strength of the Persians to be upwards of 70,000 – 300,000. I am not a betting man, but if I were at the time, I probably would have wagered my ancient-Greece-equivalent to live savings that Leonidas would not be making it home for kebabs and baklava ever again.

Although the Spartans lost that battle, their military precision at Thermopylae is revered in the books of history – precision executed while wearing sandals and capes. For three days the Spartan led Greeks dominated by utilizing a piece of key terrain known as “the hot gates” – a narrow pass along the coast that forced the Persians to funnel into a Spartan meat grinder. This battle was a prime example of how an underdog unit can withstand unspeakable odds with a bit of tactical creativity – a proper segue into the Toyota Wars.  

The Toyota War

In 1987, a dramatically different yet shockingly similar battle took place in Chad, Africa: The Great Toyota War. For almost two decades up to that point, Chad and its neighbour Libya had been in conflict. Along the border of the two nations laid the Aouzou Strip – a contested zone rumoured to contain an abundance of uranium – a natural resource of value to Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, who had ambitions to turn Libya into a nuclear power. The Gaddafi regime started its land acquisition attempts small by funding small clusters of anti-government rebels in Chad who were sympathetic to the Libyan cause. Chadian President Hissène Habré opposed the idea of Libyan expansion in the region, which was met by Gaddafi further expanding his forces on the Aouzou Strip.

In 1987, the conflict turned kinetic. On one side of the ring, you have the Libyan expeditionary force – a combined arms detachment of the Libyan army, which according to Universidad de Navarra, was made up of “8,000 soldiers, 300 T-55 battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers and regular artillery, Mi-24 helicopters and sixty combat aircrafts”. On the other side you have the Chadian National Armed Forces – a significantly less advanced force of mostly infantry, and without the proper technology to go against the Libyan war machine.

Vehicular warfare was changed in this conflict, and the 1987 Battle of Fada was where the Chadians had their Thermopylae moment. A force of 5000 Libyans was defeated, with almost 800 dead infantrymen, 92 destroyed tanks among many other vehicles. On the Chad side, only 18 soldiers lost their lives, and three of the vehicles that were responsible for the turn of events.

The underdogs rose to the occasion and achieved a victory over Gaddafi’s forces. The secret ingredient? Toyotas.  

Birthplace of the Technical

The final phase of the Libyan-Chadian conflict is named The Great Toyota War in tribute to the battlefield deployment of roughly 400-armed Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks – the tactic that gave Chad their ultimate victory. There were of course other factors that played into the outcome of the war, but the clever use of mounted anti-air, rockets, and machine guns gave the Libyans something unexpected.

Chad was the birthplace of what became a future trend in unconventional warfare – the deployment of Toyota Hilux’s and Landcruisers in conflicts within underdeveloped countries. “Technical” is the contemporary term for such vehicles, and their use has been confirmed all across Africa, the Middle East, South America, and even Northern Ireland.

To further understand the appeal of using these vehicles, there are a few key characteristics to start off with:

  • Mobility – with 4-wheel drive and a tough engine and frame, Technical’s are moulded to withstand the harsh environments and rugged terrain commonly found in the conflict areas they are used in. One of the advantages these vehicles have is the ability to move with speed and intensity, a potent strike force when utilized correctly on the battlefield.
  • Weapons – the technical’s moneymaker factor is the diverse selection of weapons that can be mounted on its rear. In the Toyota War, this was what led the Chadians to victory – turning a pickup truck into a lightweight and highly mobile anti-aircraft platform.
  • Cost – imagine the cost of a Toyota truck compared to the cost of a piece of similar military hardware. No further details required.

According to author William F. Owen of the Small Wars Journal “UK forces employed armed Land Rovers in both Iraq and Afghanistan and only recently added low levels of armour. Such vehicles can easily carry 4-6 men with light weapons, such as PKM and RPGs plus water, rations, and communications gear. Functionally and doctrinally there is no difference between a TOW-armed HMMWV and a Toyota Hilux with an AT-4/7/14 ATGM – a common weapons system used on technical’s as mentioned in this Grey Dynamics article. The fact that these vehicles can function in parallel to a conventional military vehicle is alone something to marvel at.

The Great Toyota War: Birthplace of the Technical
French SOF on Masstech 4×4 in da bush. source @towersight

Modern Use

Warfare technology has advanced quite a bit since the Toyota War, but the technical remains a crucial element of factions across the world. African rebel groups and state militaries continue to be synonymous with the technical, which is fitting for the continent’s role in the vehicle’s history. In Somalia, the technical has been called “the pirate ride of choice”, and was a notable force within the Somali Civil War in the ’90s, and the Somali War in the early 2000s. 


David Kilcullen describes in his book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla the following about the use of technicals in Somalia:

"I was misapplying the social and economic framework of a professional state-run military to an organization that had evolved from an irregular militia. In the Somali environment of fragmented, semianarchic clan organizations in which these tactics had emerged, the way someone became a squad leader in the first place was to own the technical (an extremely substantial piece of capital equipment). The squad leader became the squad leader precisely because it was his vehicle, so it would have been the height of stupidity for him to dismount and thereby cede control of the gun truck to someone else—let alone to leave someone behind him with a machine gun. He might not have remained the squad leader for long! Moreover, dismounted fighters are cheap and replaceable, but the vehicle is a precious investment that is decidedly not expendable. Seen from this perspective, the SNA’s “mounted swarm” tactics have (like any tactical system) an eco- nomic, political, and social logic, as well as a military grammar."

In the ongoing West Sahara Conflict, the Algerian backed Polisario Front is known to use them against the modernized Moroccan military (a similar situation to the Toyota War). Likewise, there is substantial documentation and media showing terrorist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and the Taliban in Afghanistan rolling deep in uniformed convoys. Even the Mexican cartel has gotten in on the technical action, as seen in this recent propaganda clip from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).

Professional military’s in developed countries use technical’s in a similar capacity but with a different mission than their more “controversial” counterparts. When needed, special operations units from the United States and the United Kingdom have used them in tandem with the forces they support. This allows for SOF teams to blend in with the local populous, maintain combat capabilities, and not sacrifice mobility. This can be seen at the annual Flintlock Exercise in Africa that partners a coalition of special operations units. 

The Great Toyota War: Birthplace of the Technical
Mauritanian soldiers escort a convoy of Polish, United States, and Guinean Special Forces soldiers on their way to a training site during Flintlock 20 in Nouakchott, Mauritania, February 18, 2020. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Evan Parker

Author

Michael Ellmer

Michael served as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Corps he enrolled at Seattle Pacific University focusing on Communications studies and the relations with conflicts.

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