The humble pickup truck has plowed through the desert sands of Libya in pursuit of Moammar Gadhafi's forces and patrols the high passes of Afghanistan. Tough, multitasking and relatively cheap, it's the choice of Latin American armies, al-Qaida terrorists, Somali warlords and even U.S. Special Forces trying to blend in with the locals.
Of course, most don't just pick one off the lot and drive to the battlefield. They modify them in back-alley workshops to become lethal and more durable. Or they come here, to a busy, sprawling plant that turns out military-style modifications by the thousands.
Pairing sophisticated computer modeling with skilled workers, many from poor families in the surrounding countryside, the RMA Group has supplied 35,000 such road warriors, mostly Ford Rangers, to the Afghanistan police and army under a U.S. military contract, with more on their way.
Other apparently satisfied customers of the Thailand-based American company range from U.N. peacekeepers to private individuals seeking bullet-free rides. Singapore's military recently bought 1,000 converted SUVs.
"We take a commercial vehicle off the shelf, the price of which is generally low, and then adapt that to exactly what the customer wants and needs. We focus on rough-tough, conflict and post-conflict markets," says Ron Tyack, a group vice president. He recently took reporters through the factory, 150 kilometers (93 miles) southeast of the Thai capital Bangkok.
At one station stood a tested Ford Everest, seven of its windows shattered but not penetrated by 27 AK-47 bullets.
"There is no second chance to 'get it right' when it comes to shielding your vehicle from hostile fire," notes an RMA brochure. Muscled up with steel, composite materials and ballistic glass, such pickups are meant to stop fire from handguns, rifles like the AK-47 and grenade shrapnel.
The converted Rangers for Afghan forces average $25,000 apiece compared to some $100,000 for a Humvee, the equivalent U.S. military workhorse, says Tyack, an Australian with more than 40 years of automotive experience. Spare parts for pickups generally are also cheaper and easier to obtain _ all reasons for their popularity among guerrillas, rebels and armies on a shoestring budget.
"The ANP (Afghan National Police) has conducted a lot of successful operations using Ford Ranger pickups in remote cities and districts. (They're) strong, work very well in difficult terrain and on dirt roads," says Mohammad Najib Nikzad, an Afghanistan government spokesman. But he said Toyota pickups were cheaper and their higher speed made it easier to pursue suspects in cities.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. Special Forces teams sometimes board unmarked pickups to avoid detection. U.N. peacekeepers in Kosovo, Haiti and elsewhere ride in pickups emblazoned with U.N. markings. RMA has a five-year contract with the world body to provide the vehicles.
On Libya's front lines recently, field commander Abdel-Razak Najim told The Associated Press his revolutionary fighters preferred Toyota but added that the more robust Ford was "a big car and has good balance so we attach rocket launchers on them because they can handle the force." Virtually all the battlefield pickups in Libya are locally modified.
The Toyota Hilux, designed for backwoods recreation and hauling goods to market, has been a special favorite of irregular forces since its introduction in the late 1960s. The defeat in 1987 of Gadhafi's forces by the highly mobile troops of Chad was dubbed the "Toyota War."
The RMA Group, which started modestly in 1985 and expects $770 million in revenue this year, also works on models from Toyota for the mining industry as well as Land Rover but has its strongest links with the Ford Mazda Motor Company, a joint venture of the two automakers that produces the Rangers just 30 kilometers (18 miles) away. Thailand has become a major Asian hub for foreign car manufacturing and export, turning out about 1.8 million a year. It's also the world's second-largest market for pickups, after the United States.
When the U.S. military sought bids for light tactical vehicles, Ford didn't have a ready product that met the specifications and didn't want to get into the modification business. RMA got a major boost when it stepped in, delivering the first one to Afghanistan in 2005.
Tyack says that detailed groundwork is done on customer requirements and the invariably punishing environments in which the vehicles will operate.
For Afghanistan, the dark green Rangers need heater blocks to withstand temperatures that can plunge to minus 30 degrees Centigrade (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), higher ground clearance given the rock-strewn roads and better suspension to take heavy loads (Tyack recalls seeing one carry a baby camel). Better filters are needed since fuel in Afghanistan is usually high in sulfur content. Standard tires are replaced by virtually puncture-proof, non-radial ones.
"You don't want to be on patrol and suddenly find you have a flat tire," he says. You also don't want to be hit with a roadside bomb because most of the Rangers are not armored, given the high cost of such conversions.
The plant also can come up with more than 100 adaptations beside the battlefield versions.
A Land Rover Defender at the plant had been turned into a field ambulance. In 2008, on urgent request from the Vietnamese government, the plant configured vehicles for workers investigating the possible outbreak of Asian bird flu, providing separate driver and health worker compartments and isolated storage for hazardous specimens.
Elsewhere at the factory, pickups geared for working in mines, sometimes underground, were readied for shipment after being beefed up with extra protection against falling rocks and rollovers. Customers include gold mines in South Africa and the Freeport mine, one of the world's largest, in Indonesia's Papua province. With an ongoing separatist insurgency in the latter nation, some of the pickups destined for Freeport are armored.
Quality control testing is done on factory grounds, with the vehicles driven through a ford, under a shower, around a steeply sloped curve, over a patch of rock-strewn road and into a deep freezer.
One piece of equipment _ a machine gun _ doesn't get bolted on until the truck reaches Afghanistan. The company is not in the weapons business.
Tyack says RMA, with 1,600 of its 4,000 employees in Afghanistan, sees itself as part of the transition from U.S. to Afghan security control, providing not only the hardware but servicing and training. Since up to 5,000 of its road warriors will need to be replaced every year, it may well be around after the last American troops have gone home.
Associated Press writers Rami al-Shaheibi in Libya and Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.