US Army training soldiers to fight in subterranean warzones

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, clear an enemy tunnel complex during Decisive Action Rotation 18-06 at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., April 15, 2018. Decisive Action Rotations at the National Training Center ensure units remain versatile, responsive, and consistently available for current and future contingencies. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Daniel Parrott, Operations Group, National Training Center)

In the age of the Space Force, forget reaching for the stars- the United States Army is learning to fight underground.

Throwing over $572 Million at the new training initiative, the Army is currently pushing to teach its warfighters how to fight in tunnels, sewers, underground complexes and other environments that one would find in dense urban “mega-cities” around the globe.

Subterranean urban operations are a labyrinth of uncertainty. From dark, toxic environments to tight spaces and difficulty communicating with radios, the battlefield of the future is a grim environment that historically results in a high-casualty rate. Firefights are sporadic but fierce, and the use of firearms and explosives underground is a dangerous combination.

Keeping this in mind, the US Army wants to ensure that its warfighters maintain a distinct edge over the enemy, training them in environments that fall well outside the average person’s comfort zone. Effectively moving a crack squad of men through claustrophobia-inducing spaces takes practice, so the US Army is looking to address the scenario before it becomes a reality.

“We did recognize, in a mega-city that has underground facilities- sewers and subways and some of the things we would encounter…We have to look at ourselves and say ‘OK, how does our current set of equipment and our tactics stack up?'” Infantry School at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence commandant Col. Townley Hedrick told “What are the aspects of mega-cities that we have paid the least attention to lately, and every mega-city has got sewers and subways and stuff that you can encounter, so let’s brush it up a little bit.”

Another factor of underground warfare is the use of chemical agents, be they the deployment of poison gas or biological threats, often in low-light conditions that require night vision. For this, the American soldier will have to learn to become comfortable trusting both his NBC gear and his night vision devices, using them in tandem as he moves through tight quarters and adverse conditions.

North Korea and Russia both make good use of underground structures, with the latter inheriting entire underground systems from the defunct Soviet Union and North Korea building a fully-functional airbase inside of a mountain. In the Army’s new subterranean warfare manual, it is said that North Korean tunnel systems are able to provide transport routes for enemy troops that route them into the heart of South Korea.

“North Korea could accommodate the transfer of 30,000 heavily armed troops per hour,” the manual states. “North Korea had planned to construct five southern exits and the tunnel was designed for both conventional warfare and guerrilla infiltration. Among other things, North Korea built a regimental airbase into a granite mountain.”

Even in the Middle East, US troops have had to deal with enemy fighters who operate out of tunnel systems.

26 brigade combat teams are currently activated to begin training at locations all over the country in order to prepare for underground warfare, with five BCTs already underway in Camp Casey, Korea; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

Of the several locations scheduled to begin training by January of next year, Kentucky’s Fort Campbell -home of the 101st Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group- will likely make use of the former Clarksville Base Facility, an elaborate and mysterious tunnel system from the Cold War that used to house nuclear weapons and material.

Army leadership are also looking for ways to simulate underground facilities with above ground complexes that would simulate the dark, confined and dank environments that soldiers may face in a future conflict.

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