Army Considers Pack Mules to Move Equipment in Tough Afghan Terrain

By Stew Magnuson
The Army is considering turning back the clock to the 1800s to solve one of the most vexing problems in the Afghan conflict: how to take the burden off soldiers who must lug heavy loads in difficult terrain.
Pack mules have been discussed as a means to carry equipment in high altitudes and steep mountains, said Jim Overholt, senior research scientist for robotics at the Army Tank Automotive Research Development, and Research Center.
Officials at the highest level of the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense are saying "maybe it would be better to go back" to the Animal Corps, he said at a robotics conference sponsored by the  National Defense Industrial Association and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
"There is one thing we know for sure: We have got to get the load off the U.S. war fighter," he said.
There have been a handful of research and development programs that have explored leader-follower concepts where robots would keep pace with troops in the field. They could potentially carry heavy equipment and take the burden off soldiers' backs. One of the more notable programs was the BigDog, originally funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Overholt suggested that the talk of bringing mules back to the battlefield is derived from the frustration Army leaders feel that the leader-follower robotics technology is not ready to be fielded while there is an acute need to lighten troops' loads.
"They are not saying 'don't stop moving out on this real key robotic capabilities in challenging environment.' [They are saying] it just might be more cost effective" to use mules, he later told National Defense.
He pointed out that there are several potential problems to returning to a practice that has been rarely seen since the days when the U.S. Cavalry fought with Native Americans in the West.
"When a mule gets shot, you don't get to fix the mule," he said. Soldiers would have to carry water for the animals. And there is an expression, "stubborn as a mule," in the English language for a reason. Troops would have to be trained on how to use the animals, he also noted.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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