How anti-railway mines could sabotage the Russian war machine

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows the importance of logistics in warfare.
  • The railroads are again the biggest transporter of people and material in wartime, forcing the partisans to damage the railroads leading to Ukraine.
  • Special forces operating behind enemy lines could use special railway mines to blow up tracks and trains, stalling the invasion effort.

    What do the American Civil War and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have in common? The two wars, on two different continents, 150 years apart, couldn’t be more different at first glance, but the answer lies in the railroad, by far the most important supplier of war machines. Now, three centuries later, a proposal has emerged to re-develop a weapon that would deliberately target trains and the tracks that serve them.

    Zachary Kallenborn, a military drone swarm technology expert and official U.S. Army “Mad Scientist”, proposed to bring the anti-railroad mine back to the modern era. write for Diary of small wars, a magazine covering intrastate conflict, Kallenborn points out that the military use of railways, first pioneered in the 19th century, is still going strong. In concrete terms, the Russian army uses the railways to support its invasion of Ukraine, even going so far as to deploy armed trains to protect cargoes of soldiers and supplies.

    Armies around the world have relied on trains since the mid-1800s. The American Civil War is widely considered “the first railroad warwith the Union and Confederacy moving large armies by rail. A railroad engine could haul far more equipment, day or night, rain or shine, than a horse-drawn caravan. Since then, every major war in history has involved the use of trains.

    Special Forces troops, working at night and guided by infrared goggles, could place anti-rail landmines on train tracks and slip away quietly.

    U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tylor J. Camfield

    Confederate guerrillas were the first to sabotage the trains, blowing up the tracks that supported the Northern war effort. In the spring of 2022, The Washington Post reported that a secret group of Belarusian railway workers, saboteurs and hackers worked to slow down Russian trains supporting Moscow’s ride on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The Belarusians, lacking adequate equipment, improvised their acts of sabotage.

    By now it is clear that the military railway is not going away. Kallenborn’s article for Diary of small wars suggests that the Pentagon should develop an “anti-rail landmine”. In this case, a small weapon would be positioned on train tracks, designed to explode when a train passes overhead. This would not only ensure that the tracks are damaged or destroyed, but also the locomotives.

    captured German armored wagons
    A captured German Army train in depot at Saint-Layare, France. The train has both anti-aircraft guns and howitzers to protect against all forms of attack.

    HistoricalGetty Images

    The US military has ammunition for almost everything. The GBU-57 aerial bomb, also known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, can infiltrate hardened enemy bunkers up to 130 feet underground. The M86 landmine, also known as the Pursuit deterrent ammunition, is designed to buy time to evade friendly troops, ambushing their pursuers with a blast of high explosives. So why not an official railway ammunition?

    Kallenborn states that special operations forces working behind enemy lines could use anti-rail landmines. A competent enemy force would likely patrol railways to detect and deter sabotage, but the power of modern explosives, such as Semtex, means railway mines could be very small and difficult to detect, while potentially knocking over thousands of tonnes of trains. The munition could use “vibration, pressure or magnetic sensors” to detect an oncoming train, then detonate once the train is directly overhead.

    mtb train
    A relatively small amount of explosives and this Russian train full of MT-LB armored personnel carriers and military trucks is not going anywhere.

    STIFFENERGetty Images

    Even a tiny anti-rail landmine would prove effective, using the kinetic energy, fuel, and payload of a train to create a catastrophe of major proportions. A train weighing up to 18,000 tons, a typical weight for a freight train, would continue to plunge forward, tearing up the tracks and smashing everything in its path. The locomotives typically contain up to 5,500 gallons of diesel fuel which could act as an accelerant for a fire started by the railroad mine. If the train is carrying munitions, the fire could detonate their explosive payloads, adding to the chaos.

    A true anti-rail landmine would be easy to develop and relatively inexpensive to manufacture. It might sit on the shelf for a while, but eventually be called into action somewhere, somehow, to help someone resist the invasion. If the Pentagon had ever devoted the time and modest effort to developing them, it would be now.

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