Russia Has Resorted to Using Golf Carts—Yes, Golf Carts—in Combat

Behold, the future of warfare: soldiers packed into golf carts rolling toward enemy trenches, only to get blown up by tiny flying robots.

You might think that sounds like darkly satirical dystopian science fiction, but videos circulating on both Ukrainian and Russian social media reveal that this is yet another horrifying reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The frontline in Ukraine has become a war of tree lines held by entrenched infantry. Crossing the open fields between the tree lines is too often suicidal, so vehicles that can transport assault infantry most of the way are of premium value to both Russia and Ukraine.

But as Russia’s huge pre-war back inventory of retired Soviet armored vehicles grows thinner and thinner, second-line Russian units are increasingly making do with improvised transports for assaulting enemy positions—particularly, a 4×4 golf-cart style All Terrain Vehicle called the Desertcross 1000-3, built by Chinese company Aodo.

There are, to be fair, sensible military applications for ATVs—they can help move equipment, supplies, and personnel in off-road contexts behind the frontline. There’s also higher-risk concepts, such as using these vehicles as mobile shoot-and-scoot platforms for long-range heavy weapons, or to patrol rear areas against infiltration.

Ukrainian special forces have been recorded using ‘dune buggy’ Ranger 4×4 ATVs and larger ‘Razor’ MRZR vehicles (built by American company Polaris) in reconnaissance roles and for the insertion of special operations forces.

But head-on assaults on entrenched enemies is another matter. The carts are open-topped and unarmored, so both the vehicles and passengers can be destroyed as quickly and brutally as you’d expect by kamikaze drones, mines, or heavy weapons fire.

Yet, for months, Russia has been hurling small-scale (i.e. mostly squad or platoon-sized) attacks at Ukrainian lines mounted in these vehicle. And through sheer numbers, they have occasionally succeeded in finding weak spots in Ukrainian defenses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin personally inspected the Chinese ATVs on November 10, 2023, giving the near-suicidal assault vehicle his personal stamp of approval. By that time, Russia had received 537 of the total 2100 vehicles, bought at a unit price of 1.58 million rubles ($17,141 in USD) for each Desertcross, or 2.1 million rubles ($22,782 USD) for upgraded variants. Desertcrosses sold in the U.S. range slightly higher, at up to $20,000.

Less than a month later, on December 3, the first two Desertcrosses were destroyed near Krynky by Ukrainian quadcopter heavy bomber drones of the Magyar Birds unit. The drones apparently dropped rocket propelled grenades from above.

The 2022-era Desertcross models purchased by Russia weigh over 3,500 pounds, have a max payload capacity exceeding 1,200 pounds, and have seating for three passengers in addition to the driver. Alternately, they can tow a one-ton payload. An 85-horsepower engine propels the cart to a maximum road speed of 50 miles per hour, while its 12.7 gallon fuel tanks allows for 155 miles of travel.

Features enhancing all-terrain performance include electrically powered steering and hydraulic disc-type brakes. Special equipment includes straps to tie down two patients in stretchers for casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) missions. There’s also a winch for towing trailers.

Desertcrosses have also been seen mounting PKM 7.62-millimeter medium machine guns on its hood, and have been spotted installing NSV or Kord 12.7-millimeter heavy machine guns and AGS-17 30-millimete automatic grenade launchers on the flatbed.

So many of these vehicles are getting picked off by drones that there are several different modifications featuring anti-drone nets or cages. Russia’s specialized RKhBZ troops (specialized in defense against chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare) also use Desertcrosses with smoke dispensers to lay smoke screens.

The ATVs are, in a sense, emblematic of the kind help Russia is receiving from China (which, in theory, has friendly relations with Russia). Had China opened the floodgates for sales of artillery shells, missiles, and armored vehicles, Russia’s situation would be drastically improved. But President Xi Jinping is wary of the repercussions of more openly supporting Russia’s war, and has mostly prevented overt military exports.

Instead, China—along with India— have helped keep Russia’s economy afloat by buying Russian oil (albeit at very advantageous prices). And Russian volunteers knock on the doors of Chinese drone manufacturers to acquire ostensibly civilian equipment like the Desertcrosses and thousands of consumer drones (which Ukraine has also found means to acquire), which are then adopted for military use.

The bikers of Bakhmut

Another cheap civilian vehicle Russia has turned to is the motorcycle, using both motorbikes (sometimes with sidecars) and quadbikes (which typically carry three personnel each) to carry infantry.

Motorcycles have long had their military uses for personnel transport and communication, and even light combat reconnaissance roles flooding road networks in advance of mobile forces. In World War II, both Germany and the U.K. fielded entire motorcycle battalions in combat scouting roles, including some side-car motorcycles carrying heavy weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and light mortars.

Russia now appears to have mounted Strela anti-aircraft teams on motorcycles.

But just like for its ATVs, Russia isn’t using motorcycle infantry as modern light cavalry. Some are assaulting Ukrainian trenches as if reenacting the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava.

Bike-mounted troops are even more exposed to drones and small arms than those in golf carts. However, bikes are fast and maneuverable enough that they’re hard to hit with indirect artillery fire (which usually takes minutes to summon even under ideal circumstances.)

Still, Russia’s bike assaults typically go about as well as one would expect, with motorcycle units defeated near Bakhmut on April 15 and at Novomykhailivka on May 7 by Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized and 79 Airborne brigades, respectively.

Ukrainian troops claim that captured Russian bike assault troops are saying they were given drugs prior to the assault which removed their desire to eat or sleep for a day.

Why is Russia sending men to battle in vulnerable civilian vehicles?

Wikimedia Commons

A Russian Desertcross 1000-3 recorded by a drone of Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade moments before striking a mine. The survivors were then attacked by FPV kamikaze drones.

In the reverse of its situation early in the war, Russia’s military doesn’t want for personnel in 2024, but faces shortages in a wide variety of munitions and armored vehicles. Russia’s military wanted to press on all fronts, but can’t afford to continue losing armored vehicles at the current rate. Using Desertcrosses in an assault role alleviates attrition of valuable armored vehicles, even at the cost of higher personnel losses, which Russia can more easily replace.

The cart/bike assaults also reflect a numbers game strategy, testing Ukrainian forces broadly across the frontline with small scale assaults that zoom in toward Ukrainian trenches after they were hit by artillery and powerful (if not especially accurate) UMPK glide bombs.

Most of these small-scale attacks fail, but the raids sometimes ferret out unoccupied gaps in the defenses or positions which have been abandoned or badly compromised by the preparatory bombardment. In such cases, the speed of the carts/bikes may be sufficient to quickly get infantry to seize the position before drones and artillery fires can be vectored in.

A Ukrainian military analyst and former officer going by the nom de guerre Tatarigami wrote on social media that while Russia “remains a serious battlefield threat, their ability to replace lost armored vehicles is limited.”

They continued:

“Overall, implementing light vehicles for quick delivery or evacuation [of troops] is a valid tactic. Since their current vehicle fleet does not meet battlefield needs, motorcycles are used instead…larger vehicles like BMPs are less maneuverable and more visible, especially with FPV [drone] cages. Meanwhile, small ATVs or motorcycles can quickly transport a small group or evacuate the wounded, while keeping much lower profile.”

Likewise, in a social media post, military analyst Rob Lee explained the logic in Russia’s ATV and bike tactics:

“Both sides always have Mavic [civilian drones] or similar UAVs scanning the horizon. They will notice dust clouds first. That means they are more likely to identify a tracked armored vehicle on the move sooner.

Using a motorcycle or ATV means you can get to the Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT) faster before FPV kamikaze drones or artillery can be called in, which could compensate for the lack of protection. It doesn’t mean these are safe options, just that they may be comparatively less risky than the alternatives. In other words, while ATVs and motorcycles may be vulnerable, so have proven troops packed into slower moving armored personnel carriers.”

But while golf carts and bikes might be stealthier, there remain a lot of battlefield threats that can tear up a golf cart (or the unprotected people inside it) with relative ease—rifles, machine guns, grenades, and shrapnel from artillery—even if they struggle to harm armored vehicles.

Here, however, Russia may be exploiting the fact that Ukraine has suffered a crippling shortfall of artillery ammunition since Republicans in congress halted deliveries of U.S. military aid last Fall. This has compelled Ukraine to rely on precision-attacks by kamikaze drones as a substitute for barrages from heavy 155-millimeter artillery shells.

As U.S. military aid resumed in April, Russia’s golf-cart and motorbike infantry are now racing against time as Russia seeks to press its advantage before the full bulk of shipments from the U.S. make their way to Ukraine’s frontline forces.

Headshot of Sébastien Roblin

Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, The National Interest, MSNBC,, Inside Unmanned Systems and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter

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