THE WAR OF THE MOLES: DIG OR DIE “The shovel is brother to the gun.

” Carl Sandburg, American Poet and Spanish-American War veteran Soldiers hate to dig. Soldiers have always hated to dig. No doubt when the Roman Legions broke off their march early for the day to dig and erect a defensive stockade, the legionnaires bitched about that digging. But the Romans digging in every night in their castra marching camps played a great part in their kicking butt across a continent or too. The advantages of fortified marching-camps were substantial. Camps could be situated on the most suitable ground: i.e. preferably level, dry, clear of trees and stones and close to sources of drinkable water, forageable crops and good grazing for horses and pack-animals. Properly patrolled, fortified camps made surprise attacks impossible and successful attacks rare in fact, no case is recorded in the ancient literature of a Roman marching-camp being successfully stormed. The security afforded by fortified camps permitted soldiers to sleep soundly, while animals, baggage and supplies were safely corraled within its precinct. If the army engaged an enemy near a marching-camp, a small garrison of a few hundred men would suffice to defend the camp and its contents. In case of defeat, fleeing soldiers could take refuge in their marching-camp. After their disaster on the battlefield of Cannae (216 BC), some 17,000 Roman troops (out of a total deployment of over 80,000) escaped death or capture by fleeing to the two marching-camps that the army had established nearby, according to Livy. In more modern times, as our pal Burt Gummer says, dirt is “the best bullet stopper there is.” And not just bullets. The trend in wars past has always been that shrapnel--from grenades, mortars, artillery, bombs, etc.--has inflicted many more casualties than small arms fire.

To the enemies who found themselves at the mercy of massed Western firepower, the keep up the fight it became “Dig or Die.” Consider the following from a U.S. Army study. This represents a platoon of 33 men spread throughout an area 250 by 50 meters. An artillery battery firing 30 rounds at the area will probably cause the following casualties under the conditions shown. By medium artillery, we can assume something in the range of the NATO 105-mm or the former ComBloc 122-mm. PD means Point Detonating, i.e. the shells explode when they hit the ground. VT means Variable Time, i.e. shells set for airbursts overhead.

Although light forces are supposed to be able to dig and dig fast, with just an E-tool it is an exhausting endeavor. That’s with the old school wooden-handled combination pick and shovel E-tool. Digging in anything but soft loam with the modern U.S. tri-fold shovel is an exercise in futility. Then again, U.S. forces haven’t faced any real heavy incoming artillery from the enemy since the Vietnam War. Iraqis and Taliban guerillas may lob some mortars or rockets at an FOB, but in such cases heavy engineering equipment such as backhoes and ‘dozers have been available to do the real work. In the case of most opponents…Japan, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Vietnam, even Germany in Italy and the coast of France…their forces have had, sometimes quite literally, years in which to dig elaborate fortifications, bunkers, pillboxes, bombproofs, fighting positions, tunnels, trenches, etc. With years to prepare, even guerilla forces can create positions virtually impervious to all but the largest and most accurate heavy weapons. Examples include such diverse places as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the tunnels of Cu Chi in Vietnam, and the Zhawar Kili cave complex in Afghanistan.

Just some of the Japanese fortifications faced by United States Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In WWII, at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Japanese had months if not years, as well as heavy equipment and forced labor, to fortify these islands. The larger of these fortifications proved impenetrable to even 1,000-pound aircraft bombs and 2,000-pound 16-inch battleship shells. When the fighting in Korea stale-mated, the North Koreans and Red Chinese burrowed into the mountains like moles to survive U.N. artillery and air strikes. The Vietnamese had been digging and tunneling for literally decades, and in the case of places like Cu Chi, may have even had tunnels directly under U.S. bases. VIETNAM It came as a big surprise to most when Colonel David Hackworth did an in-depth on-the-ground study of American troops in Vietnam called the Vietnam Primer. Rather than jungle fighting or guerilla warfare, he began with the age-old tactics of how to reduce an enemy fortress as the most important item to be addressed. “Though it may sound like a contradiction to speak first of the tactics of engaging fortifications in a war where the enemy of the United States is a hit-and-run guerrilla, seeking more at the present time to avoid open battle than to give it except when he imagines that the terms are more than moderately favorable to his side, a moment's reflection will sustain the logic of the approach. His fortified areas almost invariably present the greatest difficulty to U.S. tactical forces, and it is when we voluntarily engage them that our loss rates are most immoderate. At no other technique is he more skilled than in the deceptive camouflaging of his fortified base camps and semi-fortified villages. There, even nature is made to work in his favor; trees, shrubs, and earth itself are reshaped to conceal bunker locations and trench lines. Many of these locations are fund temporarily abandoned, thus presenting only the problem of how to wreck them beyond possibility of further use.”

The VC, when trapped by superior infantry forces, either slipped away or used simple subterranean hidey holes which they could disappear into as U.S. troops made their sweeps through the area without finding them. When darkness came, they would slip out of these holes and disappear from the battle zone.

At the other end of the spectrum, they had elaborate fortifications and fighting positions in and around their base areas, and these positions were hell itself for American infantry to root out without receiving heavy fire and incurring casualties. U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence noted of such bunkers: + Bunkers are constructed from locally available materials. +Positions are interconnecting and mutually supporting. + Firing apertures are small, located close to the ground, and extremely hard to see. + Fire lanes are cleared of brush and growth up to 18 inches high and are difficult to detect. + In some areas…the fortifications are directional in nature. + Camouflage is exceptional; in most instances, bunkers cannot be detected until the unit is fired upon. + Bunkers are built with a very low silhouette that blends into the natural growth of the area. + Trench lines are constructed in depth; tunnels connect these trench lines and provide safe and easy access to the numerous bunkers and fortifications. Then there were the tunnels, such as those found at Cu Chi…

AFGHANISTAN Knowing their home terrain like the back of their hands and having fought bitter tribal wars between themselves when not fighting invaders, the Afghans have been building one type of fortress or another for literally centuries. The newer ones have deep, artillery and bombproof shelters with quick access to these bombproofs via communications trenches; redundancy is built into the positions in case of destruction of one. Two-man rifle pits are 2x3 meters, with up to 1.5 meters of overhead cover. In the mountains, firing positions for anti aircraft weapons were circular and had no overhead cover so that they could fire in a 360degree circle on either air or ground targets. When strafed or attacked by helicopter gunships, the personnel disappeared into deep slit trenches or shelters resembling vertical mine shafts. Stone and sometimes concrete reinforced these defensive works and communications trenches, often covered, connected the positions.

Natural features of the mountains, such as caves, crevices, and ravines were incorporated into their shelters. In towns and villages, firing positions were built into or behind adobe walls as much as two meters thick, and reinforced with sandbags where needed. The Mujahedeen burrowed holes in the walls so that they could move from building to building without being exposed to fire. In the Green Zones, irrigation ditches were sometimes covered over to provide shelters and invisible egress routes. Even with good fortifications, the Mujahedeen sometimes conduct a light forces mobile defense. Large numbers of positions, many unoccupied, and redundancy is important to the style of defense utilized by the Mujahedeen; an aggressive maneuver defense taking advantage of their interior lines, covered routes, and intimate knowledge of the land. Units were kept relatively small, able to launch quick, minor, distracting local counter-attacks and then disappear into the next set of fortifications. A reserve would normally be located in deep fortifications near a central location for larger, more crucial counter-attacks.

There is not much difference between Japanese WWII machine gun positions and the general Afghani AA gun position. The entrance to the nearby bombproof shelter can be seen in the upper right of the bottom picture. When it came to air power, although modern American aircraft, targeting-systems, and weapons are much advanced from the Soviet planes of the 1980’s, the fighting in Afghanistan showed yet again, as in Serbia, that air power alone is no panacea. Operation Anaconda: Moreover, enemy targets often were so well protected by the surrounding mountains and ridges that

hitting them with strikes was difficult. Exact hits were often necessary, and even precision JDAMs sometimes were not able to achieve this accuracy. Even when exact hits were achieved, only a single small target—perhaps two or three enemy fighters manning a heavy machine gun—was normally destroyed. Hundreds of enemy fighters were deployed in the mountains and ridges, thus creating a very large number of small targets, each of which had to be attacked individually. A further complication was that enemy fighters often would scramble for the protection of caves when they sensed an impending air attack, only to re-emerge after the ordnance had been delivered. The process of rooting them out by air strikes thus was slow, frustrating, and time-consuming. Several days of intense air bombardment were needed before enemy fires began abating noticeably [emphasis added]. Fighting in the Panjwayi Valley in 2006 showed how the Taliban attempted to use fortifications to shelter from air and artillery strikes while they tried to hold the ground in a conventional defense: The insurgents prepared to defend the valley like a conventional army. They stockpiled weapons, mined roads and footpaths, laid ambushes, and set up concealed defensive positions. Many took cover in the valley’s numerous small grape houses, which had sun-dried mud walls that were two to three feet thick and as hard as concrete. These buildings had slits in the walls, which made them natural bunkers. Tall marijuana plants, grape orchards, and trees provided cover. Insurgents moved unobserved using the valley’s many irrigation canals, as well as a network of tunnels. They set up machinegun and over-watch positions on hills and mountaintops…The insurgents withdrew only after several days of heavy air and artillery bombardment. They did so in a disciplined fashion, taking many of their dead and wounded with them…The insurgents quickly infiltrated back in, re-established control over the population, and launched a devastating campaign of small ambushes, suicide bombings, and IED attacks. Insurgents occasionally fought through repeated airstrikes.

During a battle in Shewan village of Farah province in 2007, insurgents ensconced in a set of fortified compounds kept firing through repeated bombings. They did so again during another battle in the same village in 2008. Insurgents frequently took cover from airstrikes by hiding in tunnels, bunkers, behind rocks, or inside fortified compounds. It was not uncommon for insurgents to retreat into bunkers during airstrikes, then reemerge and continue fighting. Make no mistake. Air superiority has always been a must since the First World War. Air strikes and CAS provide American troops with unbelievable firepower which they can use at any time and in any place. With air cover, conventional military units, such as tanks, supply columns, and even anti-aircraft gun and missile positions, are toast. Guerillas have little to no chance to fight back at modern combat aircraft (with the exception of attacking them on the ground); they often suffer prohibitive casualties from the air and the survivors are forced to flee and disperse just to survive at all. In Vietnam, Arc Light strikes by large numbers of B-52 dropping thousand-pound bombs from 30,000 feet, unseen and unheard, wiped out entire infantry units and entire base tunnel complexes. PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) can now “thread the needle” to hit small, hard targets with surgical accuracy.

Even with PGMs, you still have to find ‘em to fix ‘em. Less than half of the Taliban fighting positions used in Operation

Anaconda were found by intensive aerial and satellite high technology search equipment. The new Thermobolic “Mother of all Bombs” type of weapons now offer yet another powerful weapon in the aerial arsenal that has proven very effective at killing opponents within caves and bunkers, in both American and Russian use in Afghanistan and Chechnya. But, as with all weaponry, combat evolves as one side or the other develops tactics to negate the other side’s advantage. Ziz-zag construction of tunnels and trenches to isolate blast and fragmentation has been an accepted practice since WWII. The VC built water-filled sumps into their tunnels to seal out gas, devices which would also help negate some of the effects of thermobolic blast. There has already been evidence of the use of blast doors by some insurgents as well. American air power is indeed an awesome thing that gives our forces a seemingly omnipotent weapon. No one can match it, and it can strike pretty much at will. But, in and of itself, it still cannot flat-out win a war single-handedly. Despite the firepower, fear, destruction and casualties, in the end it still eventually comes down to boots on the ground. During Operation Anaconda, Objective Ginger proved to be a tough nut to crack: “…in spite of over a week of sustained heavy bombing, al Qaeda positions on [Objective] Ginger survived to fire upon U.S. infantry when the latter finally reached and overran the objective [after 10 days of hard ground fighting]. One dug-in al Qaeda command post was found surrounded by no fewer than five JDAM craters, yet its garrison survived and resisted until they were overrun by U.S. infantry.” “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, to protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”

T.R. Fehrenbach

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