The Complex

Army Wants New High-Tech Gear for Tunnel Warfare

For more than a decade, the United States has targeted insurgents from the sky with increasingly advanced drones, launching air strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other volatile countries. But the practice may be contributing to a new trend: foreign militaries and insurgents are using tunnels and other underground networks more and more to hide and gain a tactical advantage -- and that increases the likelihood that U.S. forces will face them below ground in the future.

The U.S. Army just issued a warning about tunnel warfare as part of a new effort seeking high-tech robotics, communications gear and other equipment. Army officials requested industry's help on Thursday, saying "the growing use of tunnels and underground facilities by military and irregular forces to gain a tactical advantage is becoming more sophisticated and increasingly effective, making the likelihood of U.S Forces encountering military-purposed subterranean structures on future battlefields high."

The Army did not identify any specific country in which they expect tunnel warfare will occur, but said the Middle East is full of ancient and modern underground systems that can be used by enemy forces. Examples include Syria, where rebels have used them extensively; Iraq, where they are rumored to stretch for miles; and Egypt, where the military flooded many of them with sewage earlier this year, before President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power.

Tunnel networks stretch well beyond the Middle East, however. In southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters have used them to hide weapons and to disappear after ambushing U.S. forces. In South Korea, military officials fear their North Korean counterparts have dug a series of deep tunnels that will allow them to launch a fierce invasion of their U.S.-aligned neighbor. And in Mexico, tunnels have been dug underneath the country's border with the United States to smuggle in massive quantities of cocaine and marijuana.

Historically, tunnel warfare also played a prominent role in World War II, where U.S. forces fought Japanese troops who were deeply entrenched in bunkers connected by a series of tunnels on Pacific islands like Iwo Jima. U.S. troops used flame throwers, small arms and grenades to root them out, but the Japanese were frequently able to sneak back into areas that had been cleared through tunnels the Americans did not know existed.

Army officials said in the notice to industry that it needs not only specialized equipment for underground combat operations, but to have personnel available with specialized training in it. Some of the equipment it says it needs for tunnel warfare comes into play in just about any combat environment -- ballistic shields, for example. Other needs are specific to life underground, however. For example, the service is interested in equipment that can map out underground environments, even when a GPS signal is not available, and radios that work underground.

The Army also asked for information about breaching gear that can cut or blow holes into new walls, breathing devices for when oxygen is scarce, and gear that will allow soldiers to see in the dark. They could include light sources, thermal imaging devices, or items that can create light after being thrown. The Army asked private companies to submit white papers outlining their suggestions, and suggested they would begin hosting demonstrations for the effort beginning as soon as February.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

The Complex

Did the Taliban Attack a Downed U.S. Helicopter or Not?

Six U.S. forces died Tuesday after their helicopter went down in southern Afghanistan, defense officials said. It marks the single deadliest event for the United States in the war there this year, and already has raised eyebrows because of the conflicting reports coming out of Kabul.

An initial statement by the International Security Assistance Force, which oversees coalition military operations, said the crash was under investigation and no insurgents were in the area. At the Pentagon, a defense official initially said an investigation had been launched into potential engine failure -- but later switched gears and said it was unclear if that was the case. That came as both CBS News and NBC News reported that defense officials reported on condition of anonymity said the helicopter -- reportedly a UH-60 Blackhawk -- initially made a "hard landing" in Zabul province and came under attack afterward. At least one person on board the aircraft was injured and survived, U.S. officials told CBS.

The situation was clouded by the uncertainty that always goes with initial battlefield reports. U.S. officials were working Tuesday to determine more details in the crash.

The Taliban, meanwhile, took credit for the crash on Twitter. Using an account labeled "Abdulqahar Balkhi," they said the helicopter was shot down about 3 p.m. and "crashed in ball of flame." They are known to color the facts on social media to make events sounds worse than in reality, however.

 

Until Tuesday, no more than five U.S. troops had been killed in any one incident so far this year, the 13th in the military campaign that began weeks after 9/11. Five U.S. soldiers were killed in a March 11 crash in a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter in Kandahar province. Four airmen were killed April 27 when their MC-12 Liberty spy plane crashed near Kandahar Airfield. On both days, two other service members in other parts of the country were killed, making Tuesday the third deadliest in the war in Afghanistan this year.

U.S. Army photo