Small Wars Journal

Mules: The AK-47 of Logistics Recommitting to Pack-animals Across the Spectrum of Conflict

Wed, 05/19/2021 - 8:47pm

Mules: The AK-47 of Logistics

Recommitting to Pack-animals Across the Spectrum of Conflict


By Christopher D. Booth


“He has been weighed anew in the scales of battle … and not found wanting … he marches up among the roaring guns with a steady nonchalance that lends confidence and faith to the fighting men who depend so much on him.”

Dispatch on Mules from World War I – 1917

Considered by many to be an anachronism is this technological age, there are grounds to reconsider their use for future conflict. Pack-animals can carry up to a third of their bodyweight in cargo. Pack-train logistics could not only play a role in supporting U.S. special operations units engaged in irregular warfare, but would be well suited for the U.S. Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations concept. They provide mobility with a limited logistical tail, as they do not require fuel, lubricants, or spare parts; and in the case of mules require little forage (and often can subsist off of indigenous plants) – ideal for dispersed units who may be cut-off or irregularly supplied in a great-power conflict. Furthermore, they are not susceptible to many of the counters China is expected to employ to blunt U.S. technology. At a minimum, the Marine Corps’ new Marine Littoral Regiment could serve as a test-bed for an experimental unit equipped with pack-animals as the Corps engages in force design. A review of the history of military pack-trains helps highlight their continued relevance.


Mules ability to endure heat, carry heavy loads across great distances for extended periods, and subsist on poor fodder made them ideal for the U.S. Army, which long relied upon them as a mainstay of military logistics. They were first used in great numbers during the Mexican American War, and were the predominant transport system during World War I and in select theaters in World War II. Pack-trains were used in the Korean War, but the Army deactivated its last unit in 1956.

Considered the “father” of modern pack-trains, General George Crook perfected the packing and use of mules in the American Indian Wars of the 1870-1880s. Pack mules provided the mobility for the Army to chase the Apaches and other tribes across the difficult terrain of the South-west. Mules were ideally suited for this environment given their hardiness and sure-footedness. They also eat less, and require less protein and forage than a horse. As an example, over a 30-day period of the winter of 1872 in Arizona Crook’s mules each carried a net weight of 320 pounds over 30 miles a day; and in some cases mules sustained 60-80 miles a day. In 1881, a troop of scouts with a pack-train chasing Apache across rugged New Mexico traveled 85 miles in 12 hours. In one of the final campaigns of the Indian Wars, the Fourth Cavalry’s pursued Geronimo for over 2,000 miles. Most troops had to be replaced due to exhaustion, but the mules averaged over 30 miles a day and subsisted solely on native grasses.

The Army recognized the importance of pack-trains during its counter-insurgency in the Philippines, where they allowed units to operate with extended supply-lines across areas with limited trails. The critical role that well-loaded and cared for mules played in the operations is demonstrated by the fact that the commanding general ordered all officers below command rank to take mule packing courses, where they were graded by civilian packers with results provided to their superiors. (Poorly loaded mules were not only inefficient for supplying forces, but ill-fitting loads led to sores that could incapacitate valuable animals).

Pack-animals played a crucial in the Second World War in Italy, campaigns in the Pacific, and in the China-Burma-India theater. The legendary “Merrill’s Marauders” relied upon mules to carry their supplies in the terrible terrain. Writing about New Guinea, the British War Office’s Imperial General Staff recognized that porters and “animals moving on foot were the best, and really the only, means of penetrating far into the dense jungle and mountain country.” Vietnam and the modern wars demonstrated the value of helicopter casualty evacuation, but in the absence of aerial assets, pack-animals provide a means to move casualties. As the British observed in New Guinea, the wounded were less roughly treated when carried on horseback – as if the horse understood its job – than carried by a bouncing vehicle.

            In his study of guerrilla warfare, theorist, revolutionary, and tee-shirt icon, Che Guevara stressed the value of mules in covert transport, stressing that well-trained guerrilla “muleteers” and their mule teams could create “regular four-footed armies of unbelievable effectiveness.” In the 1980s, U.S. supported insurgents employed such teams during the war in Afghanistan. Soviet helicopters prioritized attacks on mujahedin supply-trains. The CIA shipped thousands of Tennessee mules to replace those killed in air-strikes, dying through misuse or after being eaten by the holy warriors. A few years later the “Horse Soldiers” of the initial invasion in Afghanistan became famous. These Special Forces units were the first Americans to use horses in that conflict, but were not the last. It was common for the most remote outposts to rely upon pack-animals for resupply.

            Despite a new focus on great power conflict with near-peer competitors, some suggest that irregular conflict is more rather than less likely in today’s environment. Pack-animal logistics provides a tool for use across the spectrum of conflict from counter-insurgency operations to supporting Marines in the second-island chain in a conflict against the Chinese.

Survivable Systems

            In addition to the limited logistics tail that pack-animals require, they also perhaps provide a robust capability that is immune to many of the strategies adversaries are expected to employ to counter American technology. While planners in the XVIII Airborne Corps pine for autonomous resupply drones, an industry is evolving to counter them. Russia is a leader in developing counter-GPS jammers, used to great effect in Ukraine. Unmanned aerial vehicles rely upon the network of U.S. satellites for everything from relaying telemetry to providing accurate locational data. Russia has invested in counter-space weapons and has practiced attacks on U.S. satellites. China too seeks to dominate space as a military domain and has its own counter-space systems. As mules do not rely on GPS, nor do they emanate anything on the electromagnetic spectrum they can avoid the fate of many platforms – namely anything sensed with a U.S. military signature can be struck by adversaries. A bonus defensive capability relied upon by Appalachian moonshiners was a mule’s ability to hear men approaching from a mile away and alerting in that direction.


Locally procured animals obviate the need for delivery in theater, though the preference would be to have trained teams of handlers and animals. Shipborne delivery remains the cheapest method to deliver large quantities of supplies. But aerial delivery is an option. In 1944, during his second long-range penetration of occupied Burma, irregular warfare pioneer Orde Wingate and his “Chindits” carried their supplies via mule. After establishing beach-heads in Japanese territory, Wingate’s forces were resupplied by air – with 1,300 additional mules brought into theater by glider and C-47 aircraft. The U.S. Army conducted exercises in the 1940s demonstrating that mules could be airdropped. The U.S. Forest Service relies upon mules to support fire-control operations and exposes young mules to helicopters as they will often be working in close proximity fighting wildfires. In their cabins the Marine Corps’ heavy-lift helicopter the CH-53 can carry up to 35,000 lbs. and U.S. Army Chinooks can carry 20,000 pounds. Thus, aerial delivery of pack-animals is a reasonable possibility.


Already during the Second World War experienced muleskinners and packers were in short supply, and since then the lack of experienced handlers has become pronounced. Proficient saddlers, farriers, and pack masters are not produced overnight and developing a bond between the handlers and their animals to function as a team requires time (K9 handlers and their dogs are a similar example). The Army learned in the Indian Wars that without experienced packers mules were of little use; and teams became more efficient the longer they worked together. It is noteworthy, that Germany – one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world – maintains a specialized unit equipped with mules in its Mountain Infantry Brigade. The trust built by regularly working together is a key reason that the unit has its own mules rather than playing a “pick-up game” and deploying to a region and looking for what is on-hand. (The Wehrmacht’s reliance on horses for transport throughout the Second World War on one-hand demonstrates that pack-animal logistics can function at scale, but on the other the downsides of this method predominating in a high-intensity global conflict.)

Which Animals?

Mules are the signature pack-animal, but horses can be an adequate substitute. (Many Marines know the story of Sergeant Reckless, the Korean mare who made 50 solo trips carrying recoilless rifle rounds and evacuating the wounded during the 1953 battle of Outpost Vegas). The mule population has fallen from a peak of nearly six-million in 1925 to 28,000 in 2007. However, the number of wild mustangs loose in the American West is far in excess of what is environmentally sustainable, with their population increasing by 15 to 20 percent a year. Some estimate there may be 95,000 on the range. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management works with Nevada, Arizona and other states’ prison systems to have inmates train wild horses that it captures rather than destroy them. These mustangs have been placed with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Border Patrol, and state wildlife agencies. Inmates working with horses have reduced recidivism rates after they are released. Similarly, there are programs supporting veterans working with pack-animals as a means to help treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The potential to further a nascent industry in training pack-animals could benefit the military as well as support efforts to provide improved outcomes for prisoners and recovering veterans.

Current Doctrine & Training

The allure of pack animals as a mode of logistics transport for challenging terrain or remote areas periodically resurfaces. This happened during the Vietnam War; in the 1980s when the Army developed a “Mule Committee” to consider their use in the secret wars in Latin America; and over the past two decades of the “Global War on Terror” through a renewed focus on doctrine and training. The Army has issued FM 31-27Pack Animals in Support of Special Operations Forces (published in 2000) and ATP 3-18.13, Special Forces Use of Pack Animals (2014).

Army Special Forces and U.S. Marine Corps offer training courses in the use of pack animals in their mountain warfare schools: as part of the Special Operations Advanced Mountaineering School, or the Marine Corps’ Animal Packing Course. Unfortunately, producing several dozen graduates a year who return to their home units is insufficient. No soldier would be allowed to sling-load a helicopter five years after attending Air Assault School if they had not kept their skills current. Similarly it is too much to ask for them to not only plan pack-loads for animals, but manage, care, and work with them as well. The Pentagon should increase the number of classes, the number of sites, and the Military Occupational Specialties that they are sending to these courses – with the aim of not only providing training, but ultimately a cadre of animal packers and handlers. These soldiers and marines would staff specialized logistics units equipped with their own pack-animals for use not only in irregular warfare, but potentially in great power competition.


            The age of miles-long wagon-trains supporting horse cavalry and marching infantry are long gone and no one advocates their return. Nevertheless, pack-animals represent a capability that may provide a benefit across the spectrum of conflict. The Marines and Army Special Forces are the last bastions preserving this military skill, and have engaged in the critical steps of developing doctrine and offering training on animal packing. Now is the time to consider expanding those efforts, and fielding test-units staffed with trained packers, handlers, and animals who could deliver a brutal kick when U.S. enemies least expect it.

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.

About the Author(s)

Christopher D. Booth is a career national security professional and served on active duty as a commissioned U.S. Army armor and cavalry officer. He has extensive experience abroad, including assignments in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He is a distinguished graduate of Command and Staff College-Marine Corps University. He graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School and received a B.A. from the College of William and Mary.



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