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Unmanned Ground Vehicles Face a Rare Market Challenge in South America: Horses

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - OCTOBER 30: Soldiers with their horses at Escuela de Cabelleria del Ejercito (Military Academy) on October 30, 2014 in Bogota, Colombia. The Royal Couple are on a four day visit to Colombia as part of a Royal tour to Colombia and Mexico. After fifty years of armed conflict in Colombia the theme for the visit is Peace and Reconciliation. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — South American militaries, like many across the globe, are looking at the potential for unmanned ground vehicles. And it’s easy to see why: UGVs have a wide variety of uses, from rescue operation to surveillance to participating in combat. But in South America, UGVs may face a market challenge unlike anywhere else in the world. Thanks to the often challenging terrains found in the region — particularly the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest — a simpler option may still be the best. As it turns out, there’s no horsepower like horse power.

Several Army units still train with horses, mules and donkeys. The Argentine Army’s Mountain Infantry Regiment No. 21 trained in the mountains in Neuquén province as recently as late July. The Mountain Artillery Group No. 6 performed a similar training operation in June. Similarly, the Chilean Army has a training center for cavalry units (“Centro de Instrucción de Comandantes de Unidades Montadas”) assigned to the armored cavalry’s training center.

Personnel from the Ecuadorian Army’s Mechanized Cavalry Group No. 4 have ridden horses in El Oro province to patrol the border with neighboring Peru. Similarly, the Colombian Army’s Mounted Cavalry Group No. 16, a squadron, and Infantry Battalion No. 44, both assigned to the 16th Brigade, 8th Division, use horses across the plains of the Casanare region. Experts told Breaking Defense there are simply some situations where traditions beat technology.

Gersain Sánchez, a retired Colombian Army infantry colonel, explained that while horses are not used for combat operations, “they are useful in the eastern plains of Casanare” in eastern Colombia. Apart from participating in ceremonies, the horses are used for patrol operations, providing a visible presence for the Army and, Sánchez argued, providing strengthened ties between the Army and the local population.

Sánchez sees Colombia moving to buy UGV’s as unlikely as “topography makes UGV usage very difficult.” Current Colombian military operations against internal security challenges, like narco-insurgents and organized crime, rely heavily on helicopters to reach isolated areas. Similarly, the Peruvian Army utilizes horses for patrol missions, including Cavalry Regiment No. 7 in Piura in northern Peru. Enrique Gargurevich, a retired colonel in the Peruvian Army cavalry, said “the Peruvian Andes mountains, which reach heights of over four thousand meters, with a very rugged terrain, means that UGVs would not operate effectively there at all.”

He said “the liquids aboard a UGV, like the water, would be affected by the glacial-like cold conditions of the Andes, particularly at nighttime.” On the contrary, “horses and mules are adapted to such weather conditions,” Gargurevich, president of the Lima-based Latin American Academy of Military History, noted. “The terrain and extreme weather patterns of the Andes” means that it will be “difficult for South America’s Andean countries to consider using UGVs in those areas,” he added. To be clear, interest in developing UGVs in South America does exist, albeit it in the early stages.

With support from the Argentine Army’s Research and Development General Directorate (DGID), the Argentine company American Robotics is developing a multi-purpose, modular, tracked UGV, called Mula (or Donkey in English). The Donkey weighs 1,300 kilograms, measures three meters in length, and can carry different payloads. For example, the UGV can transport combat systems, stretchers for a wounded soldier, or water and fuel tanks. (The company has also developed a UGV for Antarctic operations called Skua).

Similarly, in April, the Brazilian Army’s test center evaluated the THeMIS, a combat UGV designed by the Estonian company Milrem Robotics. International companies also showcase UGVs at defense expos, looking for local interest. Milrem has not responded to a request for comment as of this report. But for those who have served in the topographical chaos that are large chunks of the South American landscape, there simply is no beating tradition.