The new Army program to train soldiers to fight underground

In the modern battlefield, troops might have to fight an enemy in the vast subways and water systems underneath huge cities, or in the pitch-black tunnels guarding the North Korean defensive line. A new Army program aims to get them ready. (Ben Murray/Military Times)

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force is looking to industry for a portable way for soldiers to map remote tunnels using either ground robots or drones, and they want it fast.

A request for information posted on the website fbo.gov April 15 gives industry 30 days to send information on their model or prototype-ready devices so that soldiers in the field can soon have a way to move beyond flashlights, maps and pencils to safely find out what’s waiting for them in dark tunnel passages.

Over the past two years, experts with the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group through the Maneuver Center of Excellence have been training select groups of soldiers across the force at nearly all of the Army’s brigade combat teams on the fundamentals of fighting underground.

The more primitive aspects are familiar, from door breaching with pry bars, to sledge hammers, welding torches and cutting saws. Some of the more daunting tasks include communications, with many radios having problems maintaining connections in those environments, and keeping the humans safe while finding out what the underground terrain holds.

Army Times embedded with soldiers of the 82nd Airborne in February to learn more about some of the training. Officers and NCOs repeatedly told Army Times that knowing what their soldiers were seeing was crucial to figuring out what to feed into the fight.

For example, a single-level tunnel complex that extended a few hundred meters could be handled by a squad or perhaps a platoon.

But if soldiers keep pushing and find miles of passageways, multiple levels and potential ambush sites, the attack has to be re-evaluated and could drain many more resources.

The REF is asking industry to give them a device that can either be carried by the solider, mounted on a ground robot or a small flying drone and operated within the tunnel, according to the post.

It has to provide a 2D or 3D map, which must be seen immediately as the device is moving through the tunnel. The image is stored for later viewing.

The device has to be compatible with either the Android Tactical Assault Kit, a smartphone-based soldier information system, or work with any commercially available radio or other end-user device.

At the same time the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is conducting multi-year, large-scale challenge to provide tech to map, navigate and search underground terrain.

“The Subterranean Challenge seeks to revolutionize how first responders and warfighters operate in human-made tunnel systems, urban underground settings, and natural cave networks that are too dangerous, dark, deep, and unknown to risk human lives,” according to the DARPA website. “Teams are competing to develop breakthrough technologies that rapidly and remotely map, navigate, and search subterranean environments.”

The two tracks include both a systems goal and a virtual simulations piece. The winner of the virtual competition will receive a $750,000 prize. The systems champion will take home a $2 million prize, according to DARPA’s website.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge began in 2017 and is pitting different groups in multi-stage competition to look at subdomains of tunnel systems, urban underground and cave networks.

They selected nine teams to compete and held “competitor’s days” in 2018. Those nine teams include at least 26 entities from government, academia and industry, including groups from the United States, Australia, Switzerland, South Korea and Czech Republic.

In early April the teams attempted “to remotely navigate the dark and dirty corridors of Edgar Experimental Mine in Idaho Springs, Colorado,” according to the site.

That was in preparation for the Subterranean Integration Exercise, or STIX, later in 2019.