U.S. Special Operators Are Ready to Ride Into War On Horseback Again

Official Army manual goes through the functional and operational aspects of using horses, donkeys, mules, and other animals.

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They’re iconic photos, U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers and other special operators riding on horseback in Afghanistan as they helped Northern Alliance rebels rout the Taliban in 2001. It was also a teachable moment, reminding America’s elite troops about just how useful animals could still be even in an age of helicopters and lightweight vehicles. In a completely unsurprising move, the Army subsequently put together a manual on the subject, a version of which we’ve obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The 2014 document, officially known as Army Training Publication (ATP) 3-18.13, Special Forces Use of Pack Animals, is the latest version of the guide and covers functional aspects of caring for, training, and loading equipment onto horses, donkeys, and mules, as well as how to actually put them to use in operations. This version replaced an earlier edition from 2004.

“Since the deactivation of the pack transport units after the Korean Conflict, the Army has relied on air and ground mobility for transporting personnel and equipment,” the handbook explains in its first chapter. “Today and throughout the operational continuum, SF [Special Forces] may be involved in operations in rural or remote environments … that demand the use of pack animals.”

More specifically, “commanders use military pack animal operations when the area of operations restricts normal methods of transport or resupply,” it continues. “Animal transport systems can greatly increase mission success when hostile elements and conditions require the movement of troops and equipment by foot.”

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U.S. special operations forces and members of the Northern Alliance on horseback in Afghanistan in 2001.

If the conditions are right, pack animals like horses, donkeys, mules, and various crossbreeds – we’ve reproduced one of the official government descriptions here so you can see the authors of the manual talk about some of the different options like so many Humvee configurations – perform a number of important tasks. They can be a good substitute for a light truck or all terrain vehicle, both in terms of mobility and cargo carrying and despite their relative size, they can carry significant loads. On top of that, they can fill in as impromptu ambulances, either dragging a litter on the ground or moving a sick or wounded individual on a platform suspended in between a pair of animals.

US Army via FOIA

With all this in mind, the manual stresses that a team with pack animals is primarily a logistical, not a combat element and they should make any and all attempts to avoid contact with the enemy before reaching their destination. “Fighting from horseback is not considered a primary function of mounted soldiers today,” the handbook says.

Still, the authors point out special operations forces must still be prepared to use personal weapons while mounted, if necessary. Unfortunately, since it long ago abandoned horse-mounted cavalry, the manual says the U.S. military doesn’t really have weapons well suited to the job and offers some interesting advice for how troops should arm themselves when riding animals that’s worth reading in full:

The standard weapons of the U.S. military have a serious defect in their size for mounted operations. It is difficult to handle the reins of a horse and a lead line while holding a large rifle. These weapons also demand a certain degree of accuracy that is next to impossible to achieve from horseback. To compromise between effective firepower and effective size, carbines are recommended. U.S. M16 variants, such as the M4, are acceptable for conventional warfare environments while AK folding stock variants are acceptable for unconventional warfare environments. The ability of a submachine gun to lay a heavy base of fire from an unstable position makes it a valuable choice. A selective fire weapon with a folding stock (extended for accuracy when required) is the ideal choice. A very good choice of an immediate suppression weapon for the mounted unit is the U.S. M79 grenade launcher. It is much shorter and lighter than the M203, and the Soldier can maneuver it with one hand. The launcher's compact size allows the Soldier to place it in a scabbard and still quickly bring it to bear. Several M79s dispersed throughout a moving unit would greatly improve that unit's chance of surviving an ambush.

Another consideration is the adoption of shotguns as standard weapons for mounted troops conducting operations in dense terrain. Their unequaled killing ability at close range and less severe accuracy requirement make them a good weapon choice for mounted troops. The M249 squad automatic weapon would be the best choice for a general fire support weapon because of its size. The box magazine of the M249 is recommended because a belt of ammunition is too unwieldy around animals. The main problem with any of the weapons described is how their size relates to how they can be carried effectively and still be brought into action when needed. Larger weapon systems that are 50 pounds or less, such as the M60, M240, and M249 MG [machine gun], should be laid across the top of the rucksacks that are attached to the animals. Personnel can secure the weapons for easy access using a packer's knot, 550 cord, or straps with quick release. As discussed before, the selection of carbine-style or folding-stock weapons helps to resolve the issue of carrying weapons during mounted operations. However, further mention must be made about how weapons should be carried. As stated before, a rider can use a scabbard when enemy contact is highly unlikely, such as when traveling in a secure area. A cross-chest carry with a top-mounted sling is the best, including, including crew-served weapons that can give a foot patrol a level firepower more associated with a team in a small vehicle choice. The Soldier must take great care to ensure that weapons do not endanger him or his mount by becoming entangled in reins and lead lines or by hitting the animal.

US Army via FOIA

On top of that, pack animals may be ideal for carrying crew-served weapons, including heavy machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, rocket launchers, and even man-portal surface-to-air missiles, but the manual doesn’t advise anyone fire them while riding along. “The possible exception is the M72 light antitank weapon,” the authors note. Over the years, special operations forces have employed a number of specialized versions of this light, single-shot, disposable rocket launcher, including the M72A7 for taking out light vehicles, the M79A9 optimized for blowing up fortifications, and M79A10 with a fragmentation warhead designed to kill enemy personnel. Otherwise, the handbook instructs teams to make sure they can unpack their larger weapons and get them set up quickly if the need arises.

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U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers lead a mule carrying a Mk 47 automatic grenade launcher during a training exercise.

Oh, and apparently “Soldiers must never carry sensitive or classified communications items on a pack animal.” Though the manual doesn’t offer any additional explanation, it seems likely this has to do with the possibility that an animal could escape for some reason and end up in the hands of enemy forces. The guide contains a number of notes and other information that highlight the fact that these are living, breathing creatures rather than just another vehicle.

“Casualties may arise from animals becoming frightened and breaking loose or stampeding,” the authors mention in the section on security considerations when teams are taking a brief break or have halted for extended period of time. “During an attack on the detachment, these animals are susceptible to both enemy and friendly fire. The chances are good that a large percentage of the animals will either flee or suffer wounds.”

Beyond ambushes and other combat, certain environments, such as an urban area already subjected to intense fighting, poses unique hazards to animals all on their own. “A damaged city with extensive rubble presents danger in the form of sharp rock, broken glass, and other debris that can permanently damage animals,” the handbook says “The best choice when planning to use pack animals to support an urban operation is to halt them at a secure location outside of any built-up areas and move the supplies in by foot. However, if the detachment must move the animals through a built-up area, it should try to avoid rubble, broken glass, nails, and other debris that will injure the animal.”

US Army via FOIA

Special operators might not even being going into a hot spot that has or could sustain the right kind of animals. There is a whole chapter on “Llamas and other animals” describing alternative options. However, according the manual, special operators would require local handlers in order to make any real use of less common species like camels or elephants. This general lack of experience with these animals within the U.S. military was undoubtedly why President Abraham Lincoln declined an offer from the King of Siam for war elephants during the American Civil War or why the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps never saw action against the Confederacy.  

So, it should go without saying that pack animals aren’t a universal or perfect solution. Right in the first chapter, there are dozens of questions commanders should ask themselves when considering employing pack animals in the first place. These range from the most basic considerations, such as “Is the operational area conducive to pack animal use?” and “Are there areas for the animal to graze or forage?” to far more complex factors, including “Does the enemy have a similar capability to detect or interdict conventional infiltration methods?” and “Is there a risk of reprisals against locals that the detachment is receiving support from?”

But their utility under the right circumstances isn’t idle speculation. As they found in Afghanistan in 2001, American special operations forces are often called upon to operate in areas and under conditions where even their lightest, least resource intensive vehicles are more of a hindrance than a benefit. When the 5th Special Forces Group’s Operational Detachment Alpha 595 touched down and linked up with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum – a Soviet-trained ethnic Uzbek military officer who had sided with the Northern Alliance against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban and who ultimately became a highly controversial figure accused of multiple human rights abuses and war crimes – they found his forces already conducting cavalry raids on horseback due to the lack of roads and even established trails in the area.

“Looking back, it was the best means for travel because some of those places we went would have been non-permissive to even motorcycles,” retired U.S. Air Force combat controller Bart Decker, who had served attached to ODA 595, said in 2016.

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Members of ODA 595 and Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan in 2001.

“It was the wild, wild west,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Sciortino, another former combat controller, who was then serving with the 31st Surgical Operations Squadron, added at the time. “When we first got in, they said we were probably going to ride horses … I had never ridden a horse before. I was like, are these guys serious?”

The whole situation might have been a disaster had it not be for an amazing twist of fate. ODA 595’s commanding officer, U.S. Army Major Mark Nutsch, had grown up on a cattle ranch in Kansas and competed in rodeo events while he studied at Kansas State University. “The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain,” he said in a later interview. “Initially you had a different horse for every move … and you’d have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider. … The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. … Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly.”

The Army manual is part of a clear, concerted effort to make sure U.S. special operators are more likely to be prepared in advance the next time there’s a need to mount up.