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Forward echelon

Role of military horses and mules in mountain warfare  

China always has awkward surprises in store for India and offers non-conventional ideas translated into greater enemy difficulties. Despite massive modernization, the Chinese PLA uses a range of animals to speed up there mobility in difficult terrains.     

In fact, over the past two years and more the Chinese have been importing mules smuggled out of India through Nepal.

Clearly, the intention is to traverse mountainous territory without having to use helicopters and where vehicles are difficult to operate because of the absence of roads.

This appears to be a Chinese method of overcoming the deliberate Indian policy of not having a road network that could be exploited by the Chinese in the event of another round of hostilities in an area where they made deep inroads into Indian territory in 1962.

There are several inherent advantages of a mule-train that carries up to 70 kg of deadweight each and can travel for up to 25 km without showing signs of tiring, unlike the horse.

It also needs less food than a horse. Its qualities as a beast of burden in bad weather conditions and difficult terrain were highlighted during the deluge in Uttarakhand when helicopters found it difficult to operate in weather conditions that would suddenly and without warning appear and disrupt transportation as is normal in mountainous terrain, more particularly in the north-eastern corner of India in Arunachal Pradesh.

The other supreme military quality that a mule-train imparts to a military operation is stealth and one cannot but wonder whether the Chinese are trying to replicate what the Pakistanis did in Kargil.

Perhaps, they hope to seize the high ground in Arunachal Pradesh and ensure with the help of air support that they are not dislodged as happened to the Pakistanis in 1999.

Going by the manner in which Indian border guards are absent even as the Chinese have broken the cameras in the Chumar sector of Ladakh in the series of intrusions in that part of Jammu and Kashmir, anything is possible and one will, once again, be late in discovering what is in store.

That a potential enemy is buying up Indian mules does not appear to be of any concern to anybody in India.           

All weather support

The unhappy event in Kedarnath drew attention to the mule as an all-terrain, all-weather vehicle for the movement of moderate loads when that other transporter, the helicopter, was unable to operate due to bad weather conditions.

India has used mules and horses as sure means of transportation of men and war material and they remain part of the supply chain even after aircraft have airdropped essential commodities, inclusive of meat and fowl on the hoof for troops stationed in the forward most posts all along the Himalayas.

Parachuting supplies is known to be an unsure way of delivering food and other requirements and many a time it is seen that manpower has had to be spared from keeping vigil to retrieve loads that have gone astray and are found to be dangling from craggy crests, blown there by the prevailing wind at the time of delivery.

India has long had a history of using mules and horses as part of its military entourage both as pack animals as well as cavalry.

They remained central to warfare till the tank became the prime means of mobile assault and the charge of the light brigade became even more vulnerable than what it was when Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote of the cavalry charge “into the valley of death” during the Crimean war.

Today horses are retained largely for their ceremonial pomp at Rashtrapati Bhavan and for border patrol by the Border Security Force (which also still has a contingent of camels for deployment in the deserts of Rajasthan).

Equine breeding and veterinary services thus remain a central activity of the Remount Venternary Corps of the Indian Army with the accent on breeding and producing improved specimens by both natural means and by artificial insemination.       

It needs to be clearly understood that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse and by some genetic miracle acquires the best traits of both parents in strength and endurance.

Use of mules

Folklore has it that mules are more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses, and they are considered less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys which should set the record straight about the mule being the embodiment of what its name suggests.  

The Equine Breeding Stud was raised in 1811 as Hapur Remount Depot. In 1901 it was shifted to Babugarh to create well-bred animals- both horse and mule-for military use during World War II.

Following the partition of the country in 1947, most of the established Remount Depots, Studs and Breeding Areas went to Pakistan.

This resulted in acute shortage of mules, particularly Mountain Artillery  Mules, for the Army and Hapur Remount Depot was re-designated as Horse and Mule Breeding Area, Babugarh in 1948 and was the first Equine Breeding establishment of the Indian Union.

Mountain Artillery Mule breeding was started in May 1957 in addition to horse breeding. Later General Service Mule breeding and Donkey Breeding were added.

Mountain Artillery Mule carries dismantled mountain artillery howitzers up steep mountains. Breeding was started in May 1957 in addition to horse breeding.

Later GS Mule breeding and Donkey Breeding were added. Subsequently, in the year 1959, the unit was renamed as Equine Breeding Stud, Babugarh.

After the Chinese invasion of 1962 the raising of Mountain Artillery and General Service Mules was enhanced using artificial insemination as well as natural birth methods to increase the mule population.

Foreign mare stock was imported from Austria and mules for particular type of work were created on the basis of their bodyweight.

Experience has shown that laboratory designed mules are capable of carrying weights ranging from 72 kg to 160 kg either in deadweight or live passenger mode.

The ability of patiently carrying dismantled artillery weapons-howitzers and mortars-with two or more sharing the components so that the weapons can be transported across mountain territory even during inclement weather conditions has made the mule indispensible in Indian conditions in the Himalayas.     

The Remount Veternary Corps has been importing foreign bloodstock to improve the breed of both horse and mule.

The Noriker horse is a moderately heavy Austrian draught horse breed. During the year 2009, 200 Noriker Mares and two Noriker Horse Stallions were imported from Austria especially for MA Mule production.

Equine Breeding Stud, Babugarh started a unique project on artificial insemination (AI) in equines to propagate the superior germ plasma in stud mares.

The Stud, not only developed the technique of artificial insemination, but established a full fledged AI lab for the first time in the country and has been a pioneer in equine cross breeding program, a unique achievement in the world.

Artificial lnsemination was started in 2002 and is showing successful fertility percentage of 47.83 in mule breeding and 42.50 in line-breeding which is considered to be commendable in the business of horse and mule breeding.

Biological studies have shown up the following traits: The median weight range for a mule is between about 370 and 460 kg (820 and 1,000 lb).

Heavy weight carrier

Although it depends on the individual animal, an army mule can carry up to 72 kg and walk 26 km without resting. In general, a mule can be packed with “dead weight” of up to 20 per cent of its body weight, or approximately 90 kg (200 lb).

The average equine in general can carry up to approximately 30 per cent of its body weight in ‘live’ weight, such as a rider.

However, while a few mules can carry live weight up to 160 kg (350 lb), the superiority of the mule becomes apparent in their additional endurance.

One of the virtues of the mule is that a mule has the size and ground-covering ability of a horse, but is comparatively stronger than a horse of similar size and inherits the endurance and disposition of the donkey father.

Mules also tend to be more independent than most other domesticated equines other than the donkey.

Mules also tend to require less food than a horse of similar size which, in mountain warfare means that fewer mules would need to be deputed to carry fodder for the rest of the herd and more mules can be deployed for carrying real military weight.

Mules show more patience under the pressure of heavy weights, and their skin is harder and less sensitive than that of horses, rendering them more capable of resisting sun and rain and not chaffing and suffering bruises when packed material is loaded onto them.

Their hooves are harder than horses, and they show a natural resistance to disease and insects. Experience teaches the mule handlers how to pack the loads so that there is no chaffing or bruises through the blankets that must cover their bodies both for protection against the weight of the weapon as well as from the weather conditions.

Having learned from the experience of deploying mules to fight the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and later the Taliban-Al Qaeda outfit the US Marines have instituted a Mule Packing Course to ensure that the animal is not badly loaded.

Thus, there is a good and comfortable balance between the left and right side and the weight on the shoulder and the rump as is required when the animal is climbing a steep slope or when it is descending.

Such is the requirement of the capabilities of the mule in military operations in the mountains that the Defence Research and Development Organisation of the Ministry of Defence has decided to create a mechanical mule in its laboratory inside the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) campus.

The Scientific Adviser to the Minister of Defence at the time Dr Saraswat said the DRDO was also planning to design a robotic mule that could replace a real one used by soldiers in mountainous terrain.

One can immediately perceive the many advantages that such a gadget would have on the modern battlefield in the mountains.

For one, it can be mass produced on an assembly line basis (instead of waiting for Artificial Insemination to work which in any case has shown a success rate of less than 50 per cent).

It will prove more hardy and is amenable to being designed to carrying more loads than the animal.

The DRDO has produced a robot to be used in counter-terrorist operations and has developed snakelike gadgets that can look under the door and around a bend for terrorists and explosives.

In a learning curve if they are able to produce a mule in the laboratory it could well be a boon.