A secret weapon serving to Ukrainians fend off Russia? Subterranean mazes

By Paul J. Springer 6 minute Read

Faced with the prospect of sending Russian troops into subterranean fight, Vladimir Putin demurred. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground,” he advised his protection minister on April 21, 2022, ordering him to cancel a deliberate storming of a metal plant within the besieged Ukrainian port metropolis of Mariupol.

While Putin’s back-up plan – to kind a seal round trapped Ukrainian forces and wait it out – is not any much less brutal and there are reviews that Russians should have mounted an offensive on the location, Putin’s hesitancy to ship his forces right into a sprawling community of tunnels underneath the advanced hints at a fact in warfare: Tunnels may be an efficient device in resisting an oppressor.

Indeed because the conflict started in February, reviews have emerged of Ukrainian defenders utilizing underground tunnel networks in efforts to disclaim Russian invaders management of main cities, in addition to to supply sanctuary for civilians.

As an skilled in navy historical past and idea, I do know there’s sound pondering behind utilizing tunnels as each a defensive and offensive tactic. Such networks permit small models to maneuver undetected by aerial sensors and emerge in sudden areas to launch shock assaults after which basically disappear. For an invader who doesn’t possess a radical map of the subterranean passages, this will current a nightmare state of affairs, resulting in huge personnel losses, plummeting morale and an lack of ability to complete the conquest of their city goal – all elements that will have factored in Putin’s resolution to not ship troops underground in Mariupol.

A historical past of navy tunneling from historic roots

The use of tunnels and underground chambers in occasions of battle is nothing new.

The use of tunnels has been a widespread side of warfare for millennia. Ancient besieging forces used tunneling operations as a method to weaken in any other case well-fortified positions. This sometimes required engineers to assemble lengthy passages underneath partitions or different obstacles. Collapsing the tunnel weakened the fortification. If well-timed, an assault performed within the instant aftermath of the breach may result in a profitable storming of the defended place.

One of the earliest examples of this system is depicted on Assyrian carvings which might be 1000’s of years outdated. While some attackers climb ladders to storm the partitions of an Egyptian metropolis, others may be seen digging on the foundations of the partitions.

Assyrian engraving of the siege of an Egyptian fort. [Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/Wiki Commons]

Roman armies relied closely upon refined engineering strategies reminiscent of placing arches into the tunnels they constructed throughout sieges. Roman defenders additionally perfected the artwork of digging counter-tunnels to intercept these utilized by attackers earlier than they offered a risk. Upon penetrating an enemy tunnel, they flooded it with caustic smoke to drive out the enemy or launched a shock assault upon unsuspecting miners.

The success of tunneling underneath fortifications led European engineers within the Middle Ages to design methods to thwart the tactic. They constructed castles on bedrock foundations, making any try and dig beneath them a lot slower, and surrounded partitions with moats in order that tunnels would must be far deeper.

Although tunneling remained an necessary side of sieges via the thirteenth century, it was finally changed by the introduction of gunpowder artillery – which proved a simpler approach to breach fortifications.

However, by the mid-Nineteenth century, advances in mining and tunnel development led to a resurgence in subterranean approaches to warfare.

During the Crimean War within the 1850s, British and French attackers tried to tunnel underneath Russian fortifications on the Battle of Sevastopol. Ten years later, Ulysses S. Grant approved an try and tunnel underneath Confederate defenses on the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. In each circumstances, massive caches of gunpowder have been positioned in chambers created by tunneling underneath key positions and detonated in coordination with an infantry assault.

Tunneling within the age of airpower

With warfare more and more counting on plane within the twentieth century, navy strategists once more turned to tunnels – undetectable from the skies and shielded from falling bombs.

Listening in underneath enemy traces throughout the First World War. [Photo: adoc-photos/Corbis/Getty Images]

In World War I, tunneling was tried as a method to launch shock assaults on the Western Front, doubtlessly bypassing the opposite facet’s system of trenches and remaining undetected by aerial observers. In explicit, the Ypres salient in war-ravaged Belgium was the location of lots of of tunnels dug by British and German miners, and the horrifying tales of fight underneath the earth present one of the vital terrifying vignettes of that terrible conflict.

During World War II, Japanese troops in occupied areas within the Pacific constructed in depth tunnel networks to make their forces just about resistant to aerial assault and naval bombardment from Allied forces. During amphibious assaults in locations such because the Philippines and Iwo Jima, American and Allied forces needed to take care of a warren of Japanese tunnel networks. Eventually they resorted to utilizing excessive explosives to break down tunnel entrances, trapping 1000’s of Japanese troops inside.

A museum show mannequin of the Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam. [Photo: Didier Noirot/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images]

The Viet Cong tunnel networks, notably within the neighborhood of Saigon, have been a vital a part of their guerrilla technique and stay a well-liked vacationer cease immediately. Some of the tunnels have been massive sufficient to accommodate hospital and barracks services and robust sufficient to resist something wanting nuclear bombardment.

Sgt. Ronald A. Payne checks a tunnel entrance earlier than coming into, 1967. [Photo: Signal Corps/Wiki Commons]

The tunnels not solely protected Vietnamese fighters from overwhelming American airpower, additionally they facilitated hit-and-run fashion assaults. Specialized “tunnel rats,” American troopers who ventured into the tunnels armed solely with a knife and pistol, grew to become adept at navigating the tunnel networks. But they might not be skilled in ample numbers to negate the worth of the tunnel techniques.

Tunnels for terrorism

In the twenty first century, tunnels have been used to facilitate the actions of terror organizations. During the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, navy operatives quickly found that al-Qaida had fortified a sequence of tunnel networks connecting naturally occurring caves within the Tora Bora area.

Not solely did they conceal the motion of troops and provides, they proved impervious to just about each weapon within the U.S.-led coalition’s arsenal. The complexes included air filtration techniques to forestall chemical contamination, in addition to huge storerooms and complicated communications gear permitting al-Qaida management to keep up management over their followers.

And tunneling exercise in and round Gaza continues to supply a device for Hamas to get fighters into Israeli territory, whereas on the identical time permitting Palestinians to avoid Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s borders.

Soviet tunnels and Ukraine

Many of the tunnels being utilized immediately in Ukrainian efforts to defend the nation have been constructed within the Cold War-era, when the United States routinely engaged in overflights of Soviet territory.

To counteract the numerous air and satellite tv for pc benefit held by the United States and NATO, the Soviet navy dug underground passages underneath main inhabitants facilities.

These subterranean techniques provided a specific amount of shelter for the civilian inhabitants within the occasion of a nuclear assault and allowed for the motion of navy forces unobserved by the ever-present eyes within the sky.

These identical tunnels serve to attach a lot of the industrial infrastructure in Mariupol immediately – and have develop into a main asset for the outnumbered Ukrainian forces.

Other Ukrainian cities have comparable techniques, some courting again centuries. For instance, Odesa, one other key Black Sea port, has a catacomb community stretching over 2,500 kilometers. It started as a part of a limestone mining effort – and thus far, there’s no documented map of the total extent of the tunnels.

In the occasion of a Russian assault on Odesa, the native information of the underground passages may show to be a particularly worthwhile asset for the defenders. The incontrovertible fact that greater than 1,000 entrances to the catacombs have been recognized ought to absolutely give Russian attackers pause earlier than commencing any assault upon town – simply because the tunnels underneath a steelworks in Mariupol compelled Putin to rethinks plans to storm the ability.

Paul J. Springer is a Professor of Comparative Military Studies at Air University. This article is republished from The Conversation underneath a Creative Commons license. Read the unique article.

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