The U.S. Marine Corps special operations troops (MARSOC) have followed the example of the other services and established a training program for managing and caring for pack animals. The course is conducted as the U.S. Marine Corps MWTC (Mountain Warfare Training Center) in California. The marines have had such training programs before and have long maintained a small herd of pack animals (and a sergeant designated as a “mule skinner”) at MWTC and organized training programs as needed. The army has done the same and U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) helped by issuing an updated 255 page training manual on this subject in 2004 (Field Manual FM 3-05.213).
The reason for this training is quite practical. In many parts of the world the easiest way to move goods, including food and ammo for troops, is via pack animal. Depending on what part of world the troops are in, the animal can be a dog, elephant, llama, camel, horse, ox, donkey, mule, or reindeer. In many parts of the world you can hire local animals and people to handle the animals. But in some areas you have to bring in your own animals and handlers. The training courses show troops how to care for the animals and how to load (“pack”) cargo on each species. Usually a pack animal can carry about a quarter of its own weight as cargo and the most common ones encountered are horses, donkeys, and mules. The need for these training courses is one reason why the military still recruits large-animal veterinarians.
While the American military use of pack animals doesn’t get much media coverage, they have always been needed, despite all the mechanization and use of parachute drops and helicopters to move supplies in the last half century. For example, during the 1980s, the United States supplied the Afghan rebels (fighting the Russian invaders) with some 700 mules, as these were the most efficient mode of transport for those (like the rebels) who were not able to use the few roads (which the Russians controlled). Earlier in the 80s, when the British were fighting in the Falklands Islands to expel the Argentine invaders, they purchased local pack animals to help move supplies over terrain that did not tolerate wheeled or tracked vehicles very well.
Some European countries recognized the continuing importance of pack animals and even have a special breed of horse (the Freiberger) bred over the centuries to work in hills and mountains carrying people or cargo. Starting during the Cold War the Swiss government paid some Swiss farmers an annual stipend per year per animal to keep mules and horses on their farms and ready to be taken over by the military in the event of war. The animals had long since ceased to be efficient for farm work. Yet the Swiss Army found them useful for reconnaissance and for moving supplies in many parts of mountainous Switzerland and needed to assure a reasonable supply on hand in the event of war. Without the government payments (plus a bit of nostalgia and patriotism) farmers would have gotten rid of nearly all these animals.
There is one aspect of military animals that won’t return, even though it would, in theory, speed up the movement of armies on the march. That’s because despite the introduction of all those trucks and armored vehicles, which can move at better than 60 kilometers an hour, the daily combat rates of advance are not that impressive. The fastest sustained daily advance rate by an army is still that of the Mongol horse archers 700 years ago, who regularly maintained over 20 kilometers a day for extended periods. Rarely has a 20th century mechanized army managed a sustained rate of 20 kilometers a day. In fact, one of the fastest moving armies in this century was the 1950 Chinese Army in Korea. It did better than 10 kilometers a day on foot for several weeks.
Mechanized armies have not done as well. In World War II the German Blitzkrieg, at its best, sustained only 5 kilometers a day in Russia (1941), 10 kilometers day in France (1940), and 17 kilometers a day in North Africa (1941). The Arab-Israeli Wars of 1956 and 1967 did scarcely better and contemporary exercises show advance rates of under 10 kilometers a day.
The critical factor here is sustained rate of advance, the rate at which the entire army moves forward, regardless of what individual units may do, which may greatly exceed the average. Then there are the supply problems. Horses can live on grass for a while and troops can live off the land, up to a point. Mechanized armies changed that and must generally stick to the roads and need an enormous fuel and maintenance system to keep moving and dragging all their gear along, which slows them down, even though most vehicles can zip along at sustained rates of over 50 kilometers an hour, and smaller individual units may average 100km in 24 hours.
The push to mechanize the military began over a century ago and the U.S. Army has been trying for decades to come up with a mechanical substitute for pack animals, so far without success. In 2010 the army canceled its latest effort, MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment) vehicle. This was a UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) that was part of the (now cancelled) FCS (Future Combat Systems) program. While maligned by the media, many politicians, and even people in the army as an expensive boondoggle, FCS provided the money to create some revolutionary, and effective, combat equipment. MULE was one of these futuristic concepts, a robotic vehicle for carrying stuff on the battlefield. In practice it did not work out. Close, but not close enough.
MULE is a one ton, six wheeled vehicle that is 4.6 meters (15 feet) long, 1.8 meters (6 feet) wide, and carries half a ton of equipment or weapons. The operator (any infantryman with an hour or so of training) uses a handheld controller to tell the MULE to go from Point A to Point B. The MULE has enough computing power and sensors to determine a route that goes over obstacles it can handle and goes around those it can't. The MULE was to be used to do a lot of dangerous jobs often handled by the troops. Like bringing supplies (ammo, water, weapons, or medical supplies) that last few hundred meters to where the fighting is going on. Currently, that means troops hauling this stuff themselves and exposing themselves to enemy fire. The MULE can also take casualties far enough away so a medevac helicopter can take over. MULE can also be equipped with mine clearing equipment, to perform another dangerous job. MULE was tested carrying heavy weapons (12.7mm/.50 caliber machine-gun and small cannon or missiles), that were fired under human control. The troops are really eager to have something like the MULE around, if only because it makes their life in the combat zone so much easier and safer. The MULE is designed to take a lot of damage and keep going, but field tests revealed weaknesses that were the result of technology just not being up to the job, yet. So MULE was cancelled. The idea is still alive, and Son of MULE will show up eventually. Meanwhile, the troops get by with the real thing.