By Kris Osborn
Subterranean operations often deny soldiers analog or digital communications, unmanned reconnaissance and ambient light — degrading situational awareness and blocking sensors that would allow U.S. troops to otherwise peer through obscurants. Line-of-sight radio connectivity is often compromised.
U.S. Army war planners and weapons developers have been increasing efforts to fast-track networking technologies for soldiers operating underground in tunnel complexes and in dense urban environments.
While the Army created entities such as its Rapid Equipping Force to address fast-emerging threats, the prospect of major ground war on the Korean peninsula has taken on increased urgency in recent months.
Tombs containing bamboo slips, among them Sun Tzu's Art of War and Sun Bin's lost military treatise, are accidentally discovered by construction workers in Shandong.
“We have been looking at Korean peninsula ops,” Col. John Lanier Ward, REF director, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
This scenario has a particular influence on the REF — which exists to identify soldier combat needs, create requirements and work with industry and Army program developers to identify quick, often interim technologies that can have an immediate result.
Preparing for tunnel and urban combat with North Korea is, without question, not something entirely new or recent. However, while specifics of military options for North Korea are not being openly discussed by Pentagon war planners, many observers and analysts are talking about such a contingency.
There are many facets of a possible North Korean invasion of South Korea, not the least of which are North Korean conventional missiles and artillery would pose a substantial threat to populated areas south of the DMZ. But any kind of ground incursion, with or without the anticipated barrage of conventional missiles, would bring similar threats.
Furthermore, mechanized ground conflict would unquestionably call upon a wide range of necessary tactics — large armored vehicle formations, long-range precision-guided weaponry, combined arms maneuvers and air-ground coordination, among other things.
“We really focus on the soldier on the ground,” Ward, the REF director, said. “Any soldier can come to our website and say ‘I have a problem that I do not have a material solution to.’”
Given this, a point not lost on Army planners is the necessity of networking technology and communications devices — especially when underground or in dense urban environments. It’s by no means specific to Korea, however the geography, terrain, urban areas and North Korea’s own tactics on the peninsula would require U.S. ground troops to head below the surface.
“As an Army we are becoming mission command and communications based. How do you get weapons systems and comms that can operate underground?” Ward said.
Citing historic instances of underground tunnel warfare such as operations in the Korean War, Vietnam and even Iwo Jima in World War II, Ward referenced Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley’s special teams designed to study future threats and the likelihood of combat in closed spaces.
Interestingly, five years ago, the Army’s REF received a request from the 2nd Infantry Division for equipment to conduct operations in Korean tunnel complexes. The U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group partnered with REF to assemble and assess government-developed and commercial off-the-shelf technologies.
The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force is also testing small radios and relay devices to connect soldiers underground with those on the surface.