Toyota wars and the next generation in counter insurgency strategies

ISIS Toyota convoy in Syria [ISIS video footage]

▲ISIS Toyota convoy in Syria [ISIS video footage]

ANALYSISIgnacio Yárnoz

When you go to a Toyota distributor to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Toyota Hilux, what they proudly tell you is how resistant, fast and reliable the truck is. However, what they do not tell you is how implicated in wars and conflicts the truck has been due to the very same characteristics. We have seen in recent newscasts that in many of today´s conflicts, there’s a Toyota truck; no matter how remote the country is. This is because, if the AK47 is the favourite weapon for militias in developing countries, the Toyota Hilux and Land Cruiser are the militia’s trucks of choice.

This is no surprise when one considers that the Toyota Land Cruiser was initially designed to be a military car inspired by the famous Jeep Willis at the time Japan was occupied by the US after Japan´s defeat in World War II. However, its popularity among terrorist groups, militias, as well as developing countries’ national armies only gained ground in the 80’s when a conflict between Chad and Libya proved the trucks’ effectiveness as war machines; simultaneously calling into question the efficacy of traditional war strategies and military logistics.

This little-known story is about how an army comprising 400 Toyota pickups of the Chadian army outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed a vastly superior force equipped with soviet-era tanks and aircrafts of the Libyan army. The historical event demonstrated how a civilian truck was able to shape international borders, tipping the balance in favour of the inferior party to the conflict.

The Toyota War

The Toyota War is the name given to the last phase of the Chad-Libyan War that raged on for almost a decade, yet did not have relevance until its last phase. This last phase began in 1986 and ended a year later with a heavy defeat inflicted on the Libyan army by the Chadians. In total, 7,500 men were killed and 1.5 billion dollars worth of military equipment was destroyed or captured. Conversely, Chad only lost 1,000 men and very little military equipment (because they hardly had any).

The last phase of the conflict developed in the disputed area of the North of Chad, an area that had been occupied by Libyan forces in 1986 due to its natural resources such as uranium (highly interesting for Gadhafi and his nuclear armament project). At the beginning of 1987, the last year of the war, the Libyan expeditionary force comprised 8,000 soldiers, 300 T-55 battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers and regular artillery, as well as Mi-24 helicopters and sixty combat aircrafts. However, the Libyan soldiers were demotivated and disorganized. The Chadians, on the other hand, had nothing but 10,000 brave and motivated soldiers with neither air support nor armoured tanks. However, by 1987, Chad could count on the French Air Force to keep Libyan aircraft grounded but, perhaps more importantly, a 400 Toyota pickups fleet equipped with MILAN (Missile d´infanterie léger antichar) anti-tank guided missiles sent by the French Government. Additionally, it could also be equipped with .50 calibre machine guns, with archaic flak cannons for anti-air purposes or even rocket clusters to be used as WWII-style artillery.

This logistical combination proved to be superior to that employed by the Libyan army as Toyota pickup trucks could easily outmanoeuvre the heavily armoured Russian tanks. Whereas the latter consumed around 200 L/100 km, the Toyota trucks consumed a fraction, at 10L/100 km. In addition, Toyota Trucks could mobilize groups of 20 people in a single truck, enabling faster transport and deployment of troops to the conflict scene; an advantage the Russian tanks did not have.

Reminiscent of the Maginot line when the Nazi army challenged the old trenches system utilizing a fixed artillery method with the innovative Thunder war strategy, the Chad Army emerged victorious over the Libyans through a simple strategic innovation in military logistics. Something clearly demonstrated in the Battle of Fada. In this instance, a Libyan armoured brigade defending Fada was almost annihilated: 784 Libyans and CDR (Democratic Revolutionary Council) militiamen died, 92 T-55 tanks and 33 BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles were destroyed, and 13 T-55s and 18 BMP-1s were captured, together with the 81 Libyan soldiers operating them. Chadian losses, on the other hand, were minimal: only 18 soldiers died and three Toyotas were destroyed.

All in all, this situation was one of the first deployments of the Toyota Hilux in a conflict zone, demonstrating the reliability of the truck and its high performance in harsh environments. A testament to the Toyota’s endurance was its featuring in the famous TV show “Top Gear” where a 1980’s Toyota Hilux was put to a wrecking ball, set on fire, submerged in a sea bay for 5 hours, then left on the top of a building waiting its final demolishment, yet still rolled.

Ever since, Toyota trucks have been sighted in conflicts in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (CDR), Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, and Pakistan and as the New York Times has reported, the Hilux remains the pirates' 'ride of choice.'  The deployment of Daesh of a fleet of hundreds of Toyotas in Mosul in 2014 was a lasting testament of the trucks’ durability.


Chad's troops during the war against Lybia in the 1980s [Wikimedia Commons]

Chad's troops during the war against Lybia in the 1980s [Wikimedia Commons]



How could the West deal with this issue? To deploy a massive fleet of Humvees? It would be naïve to attack an enemy with their own means. This hardly appears to constitute an effective solution. Humvees are already being substituted by JLTV (Joint Light Tactical Vehicle) due to their vulnerability to IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices); something insurgents are allowed to use but western countries are not due to international treaties and ethical values (how can a mine be designed such that it can distinguish a civilian truck from a Toyota driven by insurgents?). This proves the challenge that counterinsurgency policies (COIN) entail and the need to move to a next generation as far as COIN strategies are concerned.

The Toyota example is one of many that clearly signals a need for conventional state armies to adapt their logistical capabilities to better match the challenges of non-conventional warfare and insurgencies; the primary forms of conflict in which our nations are today engaged. The first lesson is clearly that the traditional focus on high power and the availability of resources is poorly suited to respond to contemporary insurgencies and military engagement with primarily non-state entities. Rather, there is a growing need for logistical versatility, combining both attack power and high manoeuvrability. The Toyota issue is an interesting example that illustrates how groups like Daesh have been able to mobilize an easily accessible, relatively non-expensive market commodity that has proven to be effective in lending the group precisely the kind of logistical aid required to successfully wage its insurgency. This being said, there are a number of dilemmas posed to nation states engaging in COIN strategies that prevent them from being able to employ the same methodology. Clearly there is a need to constantly engage in the adaptation of COIN strategies to respond to new threats and the surprising innovation of the adversary. However, COIN campaigns have been difficult to manage, and even harder to win, since time immemorial.

Recent research in political science and economics investigates a number of difficulties security forces face during conflicts with insurgent actors (Trebbi et al., 2017). Development and military aid spending have uneven effects, and conventional military strategies, including aerial bombardment, can erode civilian support for the COIN. Although states have historically used mass killings of non-combatants to undermine logistical support for guerrilla actors, evidence from modern insurgencies indicates that these measures may have the opposite effect: in some cases, such measures may encourage recruitment and mobilization (Trebbi et al., 2017). As such, the challenge is to constantly adapt to meet the requirements of contemporary warfare, whilst simultaneously assessing and remaining cognizant of the effects that COIN measures have on the overall campaign.

Adaptation through learning and innovation occurs on a much different time-scale than evolution. Although both involve information exchange with the environment and with elements within the system, evolution occurs over long periods of time through successive generations that have been able to successfully survive to changes (Hayden, 2013). Learning is the process of modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences, and innovation involves the incorporation of a previously unused element into the system, or the recombination of existing elements in new ways.


In the previous example of the conflict between Chad and Libya, it was mentioned that the Libyan army had its air force inoperative due to the presence of French air support. Another important point to make is that Toyotas may have been effective war machines for the terrain and surrounding environment, yet would nevertheless have been vulnerable to airstrikes had the Libyan army been able to engage air power against the Chadians. Air and space are part of the future of COIN strategies, despite composing only one element of them. They are our eyes (UAV systems), our way to get away or deploy forces (Chinook helicopters for example) and also the sword that can eliminate the threat (e.g. Predator drones). However, maintaining complete dominance over the battle space does not guarantee victory.

Due to the success of the air campaign in Operation Desert Storm, airpower seemed to be the predominating weapon of choice for future warfare. Yet, recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have called that assertion into question. Airstrikes in ground operations have proven to be controversial in small wars, especially when it comes to civilian casualties and its impact on civilian morale (an element that could enhance local support to insurgents). This is why, to win popular support, the US air force had to rethink its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to win popular support (this also a result of Taliban and Pakistani propaganda and political pressure). Most recently, the US, along with France and the UK, have engaged in massive airstrikes on strategic infrastructure devoted to chemical development supposedly for a military use. Although being calibrated, proportional and targeted, those attacks have created a lot of internal debate in the West and have divided society. As such, the future environment seems certain to further limit the kind of strikes it can make with airpower and missiles.

Consequently, technologically superior air assets nowadays face significant challenges in engaging dispersed and oftentimes unseen opponents. The Air Force must determine how modern airpower can successfully engage an irregular opponent. Air power, the “strategic panacea” of Western policymakers (Maxey, 2018), will no longer maintain the same utility that it does against rural insurgents. Although tactical Predator strikes and aerial reconnaissance may have shifted the street-to-street fighting against Daesh, such operations are severely limited within expansive megacities. The threat of civilian casualties is often too high, even for precision-guided munitions with limited blast radius. Further. buildings and layers of infrastructure often obscure a clear overhead view.

For 2030, the United Nations (UN) suggests that around 60 percent of global population will live in urban areas. There are 512 cities of at least one million inhabitants around the world, and this is expected to grow to 662 cities by 2030. Many of the megacities that will emerge will come from the developing world. That is why it is so urgent to design strategies to adapt to operating within metropolitan environments where small roads prevent large tanks to manoeuvre, where buildings give cover to heavy cannon targets and where one is more exposed to the crosshairs of insurgents taking cover in civilian infrastructure. 

As U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley remarked in 2016; “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas. We need to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct. We’re not organized like that right now”.

In addition to this, National armies must be able to work through host governments, providing training, equipment and on-the-ground assistance to their local partners. The mere presence of a foreign army in the area often creates a negative perception among the local population and, unfortunately, in other cases, violent opposition. However, if the army patrolling the city wears the national flag, things change. Defeating an insurgency depends upon effective state building.



Engel, P. (2018). These Toyota trucks are popular with terrorists — here's why. Business Insider. [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].

S.L.P., I. (2018). La guerra de los Toyota en Siria. Instituto de Estrategia S.L.P. [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].

Wang, A. (2018). How did the Toyota pickup become terrorists’ favorite truck?. Quartz.

Maxey, L. (2018). Preparing for the Urban Future of Counterinsurgency. (2018). Air and Space Power COIN / IW | Small Wars Journal.

Costas, J. (2018). El lado oscuro y bélico del Toyota Land Cruiser.

Tomes, R. R. (2004). Relearning counterinsurgency warfare. Parameters, 34(1), 16-29.

Hayden, N. K. (2013). Innovation and Learning in Terrorist Organizations: Towards Adaptive Capacity and Resiliency. System Dynamics Society.

Ryan, A., & Dila, M. (2014). Disruptive Innovation Reframed: Insurgent Design for Systemic Transformation.

Trebbi, F., Weese, E., Wright, A. L., & Shaver, A. (2017). Insurgent Learning (No. w23475). National Bureau of Economic Research.

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