An Alpha Defense Exclusive
– By Aman Routray and Subodh Sharma
The rocky terrain of Ladakh mandates “a lot of effort” to supply food, equipment, and other utilities to the last mile. For long these “efforts” are assisted by what is often termed as pets, mascots, or working creatures; these are mules for whom no road or terrain is too treacherous. The mule has played a significant role in pre Kargil era, during the Kargil war, and even after that. However, just before the Kargil war, there was a proposal to disband the Animal Transport units that come under the Indian Army Service Corps, consisting of sturdy mules. Although during the Kargil war when Pakistani intruders were sitting at the Icy heights of Drass and Kargil, and supply lines were under constant pressure due to Pakistani shelling. These sturdy mules played an important role in ensuring supplies reached every post irrespective of their contours.
The weather of areas that surrounds National Highway 1, which connects Srinagar with Leh and cuts through Kargil is not the best for helicopter operations. The helicopters can operate only during certain weather conditions and thus to sustain the supplies in these areas the mules come in handy. The Indian Army at present has around 6,000-strong force of sturdy mules, which continue to be the reliable last-mile transport in trying Himalayan terrain along the Indian borders in the western as well as eastern sectors. The impact of these animals can be understood from the fact that the lounge at the Central Army Service Corps (ASC) officers’ mess on Polo Road has been named as “Pedongi”. Pedongi, has the distinction of being the longest-serving mule with the Indian Army, serving for 37 years, while average mules serve for 18-20 years.
Next Generation Mule?
By now you may have a question, “Why are we talking about mules suddenly?”. Well, the reason is a new development under the guidance of the Indian Army. The Indian Army and private sector enterprises are working shoulder to shoulder to develop robotic mules. Yes, the tried and tested mules now will be replaced with sturdy robots that will perform the same task with more efficiency and without any human involvement. As per our Exclusive information, the process has not only started but the vendors are also engaged. The Indian Army has held multiple vendor evaluation meetings already. The process has not entered phase 2 of this program.
Mule in Indian Army?
The Indian Army uses mules to a great extent. Currently, Army’s ASC (Army Service Corp) holds a fleet of more than 6000 mules, and they serve the army tirelessly in the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas. In the Indian Army, the mules are categorized based on the kind of load they carry, being broadly divided into Mule Arti, which carries guns and weapons, and Mules GS that carries general supplies ranging from food to medicine and even water.
The around 6,000 mules are divided into 15 units. Usually, a company has three troopers and 96 animals. Each animal also has one to two handlers, depending on the load and terrain.
Why Mule needs replacement?
As Charles Darwin said “The mule always appears to be a most surprising animal. That a hybrid should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance, and length of life, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here outdone nature.”
The mule inherits from its sire the traits of intelligence, sure-footedness, toughness, endurance, disposition, and natural cautiousness. From its dam, it inherits speed, conformation, and agility. These capabilities of this animal are utilized by armies across the globe. Both the Indian army and Pakistan Army use Mules extensively. In fact, the Pakistan army has been exporting trained mules to Chinese and Americans. The American forces that landed in Afghanistan in 2001 to fight the Taliban had to employ mules to transfer loads in the treacherous mountain terrain.
DARPA is working on a system that can provide US soldiers a replacement of Mules, Known as the Legged Squad Support System (LS3). The idea was to develop a system “Autonomous” system that can be used as a “Pack horse” for a squad of marines. This ruggedized system could operate in hot, cold, wet, and dirty environments with little or no maintenance. This system could carry approximately 180 KG of weight and operate in any terrain.
In general, a mule can be packed with deadweight up to 20% of its body weight, or around 90 kg (198 lb). Although it depends on the individual animal, mules trained by the armies are believed to be able to carry up to 72 kg (159 lb) and walk 26 km (16.2 mi) without resting.
In comparison with a mule, the endurance and speed of these robotic systems are much higher. The BigDog of Boston Dynamics demonstrated an ability to complete a 20-mile (32 km) trek in 24 hours, without refueling, while carrying a 400-pound (180 kg) load. However, the claim of no to little maintenance required is yet to verified.
Companies involved in this venture
Historically, the Indian army has remained a conventional army with a traditional approach. However, this time the army is approaching this in a completely different fashion. The Indian Army is not just wanting a system of this type in its inventory, but they are also leading the effort with private sector companies.
Currently, three private sector companies are in this race for the Indian army’s “ROBO MULE” requirement.
- Gridbots Technologies Pvt Ltd
- JAY ROBOTIX Pvt Ltd
- Kaaya Virtualization Tech Pvt Ltd
Where this is heading?
The terrain in India and Pakistan is no different from each other, both the Indian Army and Pakistan Army use Mules extensively. However, the capacity of Mules is limited, and they can be pushed a little more than this with additional training. With logistics today becoming “almost” a deciding factor, the need for a better solution is always explored. However, DARPA has shelved both of their programs big dog and LS3 giving to noise levels. Thus, it will be interesting to see how the Indian army will approach this.