Tactical Applications of Civilian Vehicles

There’s a lot of material on the internet about “tactical bug-out vehicles.” While there are many useful accessories that you can get, some guys end up spending a lot of money tricking out their truck with a lot of do-dads that they will likely never use (that’s a nice fording kit you’ve got on that lifted truck, how many 5-foot deep rivers do you ford in a year?). In reality, there is a lot that you can do with your current vehicles with little to no modifications at all. All you need to do is take a serious look at what your METL requires of your vehicles.

Before I begin listing these uses, it is important to recognize the risks inherent in using vehicles for tactical applications. First, it is very easy to trace your vehicle back to you, even without your license plate or VIN number. This is even easier if you have identifying markings on your car such as bumper stickers, personalized license plates, or identifiable damage. If your vehicle is caught on a cell phone camera, dash cam, or simply seen by someone observant, it does not take much to narrow down the few people in your town with your specific make, model, and color vehicle. This is why the IRA always “borrowed” vehicles for their operations.

Second, civilian vehicles are very bad places to be when bullets are flying. Cars are bullet magnets, and without protective armored plating, you only have 2 real options if you find yourself in a vehicle during a gunfight. Either 1: drive away, or 2: dismount and fight on foot. Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, car doors won’t even stop pistol rounds, so trying to fight from your car is a very bad idea. Fortunately, most tactical applications of civilian vehicles don’t involve fighting from them.

No one suspects a minivan of anything, ever.  Especially if driven by a woman.

Covert Troop Transport

The biggest utility of civilian vehicles is their ability to blend in while moving things or people. Covert insertion and extraction of tactical teams sounds simple enough, but there are some simple measures you can take to even further avoid suspicion.

Ideally, the insertion/extraction would take place at a time and place that fits the patterns of life for that vehicle. For example, if “Jerry” uses his minivan to drive his kids to school along country road A every morning at 7, the neighbors are already accustomed to seeing that vehicle at that place and time, and will thus ignore it. So if you need to recover a 3-man scout team along country road A, the team would set some prearranged signal on the side of the road so Jerry knows to stop and let them hop in the back. An opposition force asking the neighbors if they saw anything suspicious wouldn’t find anything, as no new vehicles came through the area that day. And if Jerry gets stopped and questioned, he has a perfect cover story. After all, the best covers are always true.

Another way to mitigate suspicion is to get creative where you carry your personnel. For example, a small van might seat several people, but if the opposition is looking for a squad-sized element, they’re likely to notice and stop such an obvious exfil vehicle. However, you can fit 2 fire teams (8 guys) in the covered bed of a pickup truck if they’re not claustrophobic. This is but one example, there are countless ways to disguise a troop transport as something else. You could also use the passenger seats like normal, and have a bunch of extra large sweatshirts for the team being inserted/extracted to throw on over their gear. You get the idea. Hiding in plain sight is the name of the game.

Covert resupply should use covert containers.  A cooler like this won’t get a second look in the back of a truck, and can hold a couple USGI ammo cans.  Throw some ice and drinks on top of the cans for added security.

Resupply of teams in the field

The same principles apply to covert transport of “stuff” as with covert transport of personnel. Appear to be something that you are not. Blend in, use existing patterns of life. The best covers are always true.

A minivan with all but the front seats removed.  Plenty of space for two stretchers.


Having a vehicle set aside for CASEVAC is a good thing to plan out ahead of any operation, even defensive ones. An ambulance should have enough room to accommodate a stretcher or two, with space for a medical attendant to ensure continuity of care. It should be stocked with additional medical supplies to handle trauma, such as extra wound dressings and bandages. If you have someone with the training to use them, a couple of IV bags would be a worthwhile addition.

When it comes to your ambulance, functionality takes precedence over stealth. Minivans, some pickup trucks, and even trailers can be used for this purpose. If you believe that the opposition will respect it, you may choose to mark your ambulance with a large red cross. Or you might not, situation will dictate. Hopefully you have a field hospital set up, adequately staffed and supplied. Otherwise, you may have to come to terms with your casualties getting treatment from the enemy, or no treatment at all.

Surveillance Platform

Vehicles can be used for surveillance of an area, or a specific building if done correctly. In this case, it is not always possible to use a vehicle that already has patterns of life at the target, so the best thing you can do is avoid patterns. Do not drive through the same area with the same vehicle multiple times, as that will get you noticed. Instead, use different vehicles and come from different directions at irregular time intervals. Have a different set of clothes on each time as well. It also helps if the person driving is not the one doing the surveillance, so they aren’t observed looking around and can act like another bored driver focused on the road. Meanwhile the observer is concealed in the back seat, where many SUVs have tinted windows.

If conducting recon in a static (parked) vehicle, you must give the impression that the vehicle is unoccupied. Sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car for long periods of time is not something normal people do, so you shouldn’t let people see that. In a van or other vehicle with an extended cab, often the back windows are slightly tinted while the front row windows are not. If this is the case, move to the back row and let the world see an empty cab. I have personally used this technique successfully in the past, and my vehicle was completely ignored. Nobody looks at a vehicle without a driver and guesses that there is someone in the back, unless you give them reason to. Avoid unnecessary noise and movement while observing. This should go without saying, but you should make sure that you’re parked somewhere that one would expect to see a parked car, not just randomly on the side of the road.

Sniping from vehicles has its advantages, as long as you don’t stick around after the shot.

Covert Weapons Platform

One does not need to look very hard to find examples of guerrillas, terrorists, or special forces soldiers modifying a vehicle to use it for an improvised sniper hide. Perhaps the most recent and memorable example is the beltway snipers, who cut two small holes in the back of a car for their muzzle and optic. Not only did this conceal the muzzle flash, the vehicle acted as a baffle and suppressed the sound of the gunshot a bit. By firing from inside a vehicle, the shooter also didn’t need to worry about their brass getting found by a forensics team.

Using a thin-skinned vehicle as a covert firing platform relies on the vehicle not being discovered. Normally, this means firing one shot and leaving. If multiple shots are to be fired from the vehicle, steps should be taken to protect the shooter and driver from return fire. The IRA accomplished this with improvised steel plating concealed within cars and vans that they used as weapons platforms.

Even when unarmored, technicals pose a significant threat with mobile firepower.

Overt Weapons Platform

More commonly known as “technicals,” these have tactical applications in come scenarios when you don’t care about being covert. Any number of large weapons can and have been mounted in the back of pickup trucks, from machine guns to recoilless rifles to mortars. Use overt vehicles like this for a QRF or personnel recovery team when you need to bring some firepower and bring it quick. While your typical Somali warlord would typically mount a machine gun and leave it at that, there are some other modifications you should consider when going overt.

First and most obvious, you should try to find a way to protect the driver and gunner in the vehicle. Improvised cab and turret armor are generally the way to go here, provided you have the materials and expertise to make such a modification. It should be noted that armor adds a great deal of strain on your vehicle’s suspension, so make sure that your Marvin Heemeyer contraption can still drive with that kind of weight.

Next, your overt tactical vehicle should be given a new paint job so you can effectively camouflage it from hostile ground troops and drones. All civilian vehicles, regardless of color, have a glossy finish that is impossible to camouflage effectively because it reflects light. You will need to paint over this with flat earthy colors. Krylon works fine, if you can get enough of it. Once the paint job is done, you should get some mil-surp cammie netting and size it for your vehicle. The practice of camouflaging a tactical vehicle is such an in-depth topic it deserves its own article.

Finally, make sure that whatever weapon you’re mounting on the back of your technical is worth going overt. This typically means a light machine gun at a minimum, or something else that is too heavy or cumbersome to transport and operate on foot. Or you may not mount a weapon at all, and opt to use your truck as an overt troop transport with benches in the back. Perhaps some combination of the two, let your needs dictate your actions.


Civilian vehicles can be incredibly useful for tactical applications if you appreciate them for what they are. As long as you use proper tradecraft and don’t try to make your car into something it isn’t, you will be successful in whatever operations you conduct. Remember that “tactical” means that you are using proper tactics to approach problems, not simply throwing a bunch of expensive mods at your truck. Equipment doesn’t solve problems, people with brains do.

If you want practice solving tactical problems, I still have plenty of spots available in the Force-on-Force Lab on March 26-27. Come out and get practice working in a team of shooters facing a living, thinking enemy. I also have a Team Leader Class scheduled for March 5-6 if you want to learn how to be an effective small unit leader. Email me at vonsteubentraining@protonmail.com to register.

Published by vonsteubentraining

Mike is the owner and chief instructor of Von Steuben Training & Consulting (VSTAC). A self-described “Tactical Scholar,” he spent 6 years in the Marine Corps as a radio operator and small-unit tactics instructor. He has dedicated his life to honing the tactical prowess of himself and his fellow patriots, guided by the wisdom of his commanding officer, Jesus Christ. He can be contacted via email at vonsteubentraining@protonmail.com

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