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DShK on Wheels: Motorcycle Mounted Machine Gun

The ongoing Syrian Civil War will perhaps be the most cataclysmic episode in Syrian history for the remainder of the 21st century. The conflict has produced some of the highest numbers of casualties and refugees than perhaps any other in the past decade and is one of the more brutal civil wars still continuing. It has also begotten the rise and fall of the worst form of religious extremism that current generations may see in their lifetimes — that of Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State.

Against this ghastly backdrop, we have the invention and tactical application of the “motorcycle DShK” concept. This is the improvised marrying of the original Soviet Russian-produced Degtyaryov-Shpagin Large-Calibre (DShK) belt-fed 12.7x108mm heavy machine gun to local motorcycles in order to create an extremely mobile machine gun platform. The background and original intent of the concept has since been lost in the confusion of the war, but the concept quickly proliferated throughout the conflict, with different factions adopting it and putting their own additions and spins on it.

DShK on a motorcycle
A Chinese W85-patterned Heavy Machine Gun (Iran produces a copy as well) in use by so-called Islamic State forces against low-flying aircraft. Note the crude construction of the rear mounting plate.

The basic economy of the design is quite simple and straightforward. Manually geared motorcycles flood the Syrian and Iraqi auto markets from Iran and the Gulf Coast countries. New ones can cost less than 200 or 300 U.S. dollars in Iraqi dinars or Syrian pounds. As they age, they become less reliable, much of the time requiring owners to administer multiple vigorous kick-starts to get the things running.

On the other hand, crew-served DShK heavy machine guns are harder to come by, but due to the war, there’s definitely an ample supply. Russian, Chinese, and Iranian support of the Assad regime has led to DShK and DShKM-patterned variants from all three suppliers ending up in common use throughout Syria — by many factions either allied with Assad, against him, or neutral. This has mostly been due to the semi-disintegration of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from the beginning of the revolution almost a decade ago. Some of the Chinese variants carry the nomenclature of W85, retaining the DShKM operating mechanism but with several differences in external design.

DShK Motorcycle
A DShK-equipped motorcycle in use by Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Soda, orientated toward Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters approximately a kilometer out.

When the United States and coalition joined the war on the side of the Kurdish-Arab-Christian alliance (which became known as the SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces) against the so-called Islamic State (IS), at least 3,500 DShK-patterned machine guns were requested in 2018 budgets and another 500 the year after, via the Counter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Train and Equip Fund. A fascinating caveat to this effort is the SOCOM interest, publicly unveiled in 2017, to get American manufacturers to make Soviet-era small arms and ammunition in order to better support SDF forces already stocked with aging gear in need of replacement parts and maintenance.

The bikes, blasters, and bullets are in supply, but what’s the actual tactical requirement? Ground conflicts in desert regions are often fights over supply avenues and key population centers that usually control these arteries of movement. There’s very little elevation to be held or beaches to be crossed in Syria, so this leaves much of the fighting to occur either in confined urban centers (such as Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hama) or across wide swathes of terrain in flanking movements and direct attacks (such as Baghouz, Idlib province, or the Hasakah countryside). Therefore, forces use a mixture of hardened positions — less so if being droned day and night — and vehicles. For many forces, the vehicular option consists of pickup bed-mounted machine guns in commercial trucks, Eastern Bloc-origin BMP or Turkish M113 armored personnel carriers, or even the improvised slab-sided armor configurations that IS was especially fond of employing.

DShK Motorcycle
Note the use of the earth wall as a support system to brace the motorcycle and heavy machine gun off. Where pintle mount fails is in the pivot mount on the machine gun, which doesn’t allow enough stability for bursts or sustained fire.

There are three issues with these types of vehicles. The first is maneuverability. The Syrian countryside is wide and expansive, but it has obstacles such as wadis, tributaries, impassible farming fields, and sucking muck in the winter, which prevents the passage of tracked or wheeled vehicles. The second is being spotted by UAVs and getting hit by precision-guided ordnance. This was a serious issue for IS fighters who became targets of coalition air support, SDF forces engaging Turkish forces in the U.S. betrayal of October 2019, and for both sides of the conflict in Idlib — where SAA troops were targeted by Turkish air power, and Turkish/Free Syrian Army/Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham forces were targeted by Russian air forces. Tracked and wheeled vehicles can be difficult to camouflage while stationary, usually giving their position away through movement or the thermal signatures from their engines. Finally, the last issue is that of cost. BMPs need to be captured, Mad Max vehicles need to be fabricated, M113s need to be supplied by Turkey, and good pickup trucks with 4×4 off-road capabilities need to be purchased and outfitted with the right pedestal mounts and armor.

But what about motorcycles? Bikes can go anywhere a tracked or wheeled vehicle can, and almost everywhere it can’t. The only concealment they need from UAV activity is a space large enough to squeeze in — or a mat that can be thrown over it. Their single operator status makes them much less of an attractive target than a tactical vehicle, and as long as weapons aren’t visible, they usually can’t be targeted due to positive identification requirements. Cost-wise, they’re expedient and very cheap — or can be stolen en masse. But most importantly, they can be very easily modified to fit heavy machine guns.

DShK Trike
The latest iteration of the DShK-mounted motorcycle in Rojava is this sidecar-improvised version. Note the newly designed mount allows for better stability of the DShK in a sustained fire role.

The motorcycle pairing solved another dilemma of the Syrian conflict. Due to the nature of the fighting and the land, indigenous infantrymen aren’t prone to carrying heavy loads over long periods of anything bigger than a PK-patterned machine gun and a stuffed day pack. Heavy weapons were transported using vehicles, either by mounting them or simply relocating them to jump off or support positions. The ability to use an all-terrain vehicle to quickly displace a heavy machine gun that would otherwise be targeted or very difficult to move quickly became a distinct advantage during the conflict.

It was in these circumstances that the motorcycle DShK was born. The first open-source appearance of the design was a grainy cell phone video depicting a Hayat-Tahrir-Sham fighter in 2017 pointing his DShK derivative into the heavens, carefully squeezing several rounds off at time. The setup was craft-produced, the machine gun couldn’t be controlled on automatic without destabilizing the motorcycle, and it doesn’t appear that rounds downrange could’ve been very accurate. 

Motorcycle Machine Gun Fabrication
Close-up of the 360-degree DShK-pintle single-point mount on a rear stand platform. Note the kickstand legs that allow for better support while in a mounted, unbraced position.

But the concept stuck, and similar to many tactically beneficial methods in the war, it was quickly adopted by opposing forces. With each iteration, the welders and fabricators of either side improved the design. In some examples, folding tripod legs were added to the rear of the bikes, providing better stability during employment. Other designs incorporated ammunition cans attached to the pedestal mount itself, in addition to spare belt cans mounted on the handlebars.

DShk Motorcycle Syria
A Chinese or Iranian W85 on a captured SDF motorcycle mount in 2020. Note the complex HMG pintle mount that allows for a locked elevation adjustment. Also, the spare ammunition box on the front left frame.

However, in terms of effectiveness on the battlefield, the results were inconclusive. Kurdish fighters talked highly of the motorcycle DShKs employed by Daesh during the Hajin-Baghouz campaign, recounting how effective they were in using terrain features to establish firing positions, open up on SDF forces, then quickly break down, relocate, and continue the fight from another angle. Conversations with fighters in the northwestern part of Syria in Idlib revealed a lack of widespread use as of 2020. In late 2019 and early 2020, the SDF was still using the platform on a very limited scale against Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces on the Tel Tamir-Ayn Issa axis.

Studying open-source media depicts fighters of all sides employing the machine guns quite haphazardly due to the instability of the mounts. Some of the better employments of the system have been by disciplined machine gunners using controlled bursts or even squeezing off single rounds. When combined with propping the motorcycle against solid terrain features such as mud walls or dirt rises, a gunner can create a platform more stable than shooting from the motorcycle as a standalone mount. Possibly as a necessary improvement over previous designs, at least one faction in Syria implemented a sidecar motorcycle variant as of February 2020.

The key lesson here for service personnel heading overseas or observers of these conflicts is to understand how improvised weapon systems can quickly be recognized, adopted, and employed as effective tools of war in an asymmetric battlefield. At the same time, it’s important to critically examine the actual use of these weapon systems in combat; as demonstrated by the motorcycle DShK, their capabilities often rely as much on the operators as on their technical characteristics.  

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