The Toyota Hilux: Hell on Wheels

A Toyota Hilux driven by a private security company in Afghanistan ( source )

A Toyota Hilux driven by a private security company in Afghanistan (source)


Driving around the streets of Chapel Hill is one of the most important military innovations of the past century. It is an instrument of death that has enabled insurgents, terrorist groups, and freedom fighters to strike with speed and reliability. From Ukraine to Yemen and Afghanistan to Somalia, this beloved weapon of the Taliban and ISIS has enabled ragtag militias across the world to compete with American military muscle.

The Toyota Hilux, known in the U.S. as the Toyota Pickup or the Toyota Tacoma, is the AK-47 of the automotive world. It is nigh indestructible; the British car program Top Gear once crashed it into tree, set it on fire, drowned it in the sea, and dropped a building on it, and the plucky Toyota still worked. The vehicle’s strength draws from its construction. Because it is designed as body-on-frame, where the bodywork is fitted atop a steel chassis, it is far more sturdy than most modern cars. According to one Toyota official, it is not uncommon for the truck to run between 200,000 and 300,000 miles.

In war, speed is everything.  Virtually all modern military units are mechanized, meaning they drive, not walk, to battle crammed in armored vehicles. This presents a problem for the militia on a budget. For example, an up-armored Humvee runs $220,000, and its replacement, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, will set you back $500,000, neither of which are available at your local dealer. On the other hand, a brand-new model of the most basic version of the Toyota Hilux, the Workmate, costs only $22,000. It’s also superior in terms of fuel efficiency; it gets 27 miles-per-gallon, besting the Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle’s 1.7 MPG. It’s also ubiquitous; as of 2017, Toyota has sold 17.7 million Pickups. Its popularity suggests parts would be more readily available in war-torn regions, and mechanics know how to repair them more often.

Of course, the Toyota pickup cannot withstand an American airstrike or tank shell. In terms of firepower, it is limited to whatever large machine gun you can mount on it. Yet the fast and light Toyota Pickup has defeated military-grade equipment in the past. For example, ISIS, the terrorist group perhaps most affiliated with the Toyota pickup, employed the vehicle to conquer the Humvee-driving Iraqi army in 2014. In the aptly-named 1986 Toyota War, the Chadian army, outgunned and outmanned, used Toyota pickups to trounce the larger Soviet-equipped Libyan army.

In a speech following the September 11th attacks, President Bush notably remarked, “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.” Bush’s reasoning still holds true today. A single U.S. airstrike against a $30,000 ISIS pickup truck can cost taxpayers $500,000. Tomahawk cruise missiles cost $1.4 million a piece. These sky-high expenditures not only point to the American military’s unsustainable war practices but also raise an important question. If a militia with Kalasjnikovs and Toyotas can compete with the U.S. military for a fraction of the cost, then what is the benefit of America’s massive military budget?

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