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Fighting a high-tech war with a low-tech mule

US Marines and soldiers are training to fight in Afghanistan, where mules and donkeys can haul supplies and weapons to places where Humvees and helicopters can't easily go.

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For example, helicopters can have difficulty flying at Afghan­istan's higher elevations – between 5,000 and 14,000 feet. The altitude makes it tougher for helicopters to carry heavy loads, and engines need more fuel to run in the thinner mountain air. Pilots must learn a new set of techniques.

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The nature of the enemy threat, too, is different. The Taliban use small arms and rocket-propelled grenades to target helicopters. That means pilots must fly higher in Afghanistan than they do in Iraq, where the main weapons used against US troops are roadside bombs and attacks against helicopters are less frequent.

Afghanistan's high altitude can have a withering effect on even the most fit marine or soldier. Sgt. Scott Moss, who teaches mountain sniping techniques here, tells students to do leg and lung conditioning prior to deployment.

Heavy loads, like packs of 70 pounds or more, can be extremely difficult to carry during the first two weeks in a high-altitude environment, he says.

"Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain," says Sergeant Moss as he stands in the middle of a mountain road here.

ENTER THE MULES. In a place as demanding as Afghanistan, the military must look at "sustainment" – the resupply, care, and feeding of the force – in a new way. The result: mule school.

Some of Afghanistan's high terrain is so inhospitable that helicopters can't fly to forward bases. Yet, working among the populace is crucial to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Since the workhorse of the military, the Humvee, can't cross many mountain passes, mules are the best alternative, officers say.

It is here at the Marine Corps's Mountain Warfare Training Center, where marines and other troops are schooled in sniping, navigation, packing an animal, and survival – including careful instruction on how to eat a goat.

"Long-haul sustainment," says Col. Norm Cooling, who runs the center, "means you've got to leverage things on one end of the spectrum, like animals, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, like GPS-guided combat delivery system drops from fixed-wing aircraft.... What [logistician] was ever taught to do that?"

Bridgeport, in the eastern Sierra Nevada near the Nevada state line, most nearly replicates the high-altitude terrain troops will encounter in Afghanistan.

With its chaletlike buildings, hunting motifs, and snowcapped mountain backdrop, the base has earned a reputation within the military as a "ski and climb club" for those fortunate enough to win assignment here.

But many say that belies its value as a US-based training facility almost uniquely suited to the complex terrain of South Asia. It is the ideal location to offer the Animal Packing Course, a two-week program in which students learn the fine points of mule packing.