Bring Back the Anti-Rail Landmine
During the American Civil War, the Confederacy pioneered the anti-rail landmine. The basic concept is no different than a modern landmine: a passing train activates a pressure-sensor and triggers an explosive. During the war, anti-rail landmines destroyed two heavily-laden trains headed to Tennessee, spurring the creation of the first mine-clearing roller.
Skip ahead 150 years to today. The war in the Ukraine is a stark reminder of the criticality of logistics, and particularly trains. For all the technological wonders of the past century from flight to computers and artificial intelligence, old-fashioned trains remain a highly effective means to transport large amounts of food, fuel, troops, and other resources over land. Among Russia’s struggles has been bringing troops and resources to the front-line, and Ukraine has tried to make the problem worse. Russia has been attempting the same, targeting Ukrainian railway.
The United States should learn from this, and create an old-fashioned weapon for an old-fashioned problem: the anti-rail landmine. Coupling old school concepts with modern capabilities can vastly improve effectiveness: the Civil War did not have dedicated special operations forces to emplace landmines, open-source imagery to easily map a country’s entire rail network, network analysis techniques and tools to identify strategic chokepoints, and modern long-range fires from rocket artillery to drones and aircraft for follow-up strikes on fixed trains and military engineers. Anti-rail landmines should not only serve US operators, but could be provided to allied nations. Ukraine would benefit a lot.
What an Anti-Rail Mine Can do
As Chuck de Caro proposed in Small Wars Journal, special operators could sneak deep into enemy territory, and emplace anti-rail landmines in strategic rail choke points. De Caro proposed regular Semtex, but anti-rail landmines would damage, derail, or destroy the locomotive and cars in addition to the railway. Damaging, derailing, or destroying the locomotive or cars would make things much worse. Damaged, derailed, or destroyed cars or locomotives, weighing potentially over 60 tons, may need to be moved, before the train can continue or railway repairs can start. If the locomotive is derailed or severely damage, the train may need to wait for another locomotive to arrive to move the rail cars. All that delay slows delivery of the train’s supplies, while also fixing the train in a known position for follow-on artillery, drone, air, or special operator strikes. Even more so if the explosion also takes out a rail bridge. Recovering from a destroyed rail bridge is a big challenge; adding a destroyed locomotive and some train cars too would be a nightmare. Military engineers would need to work even harder, and longer to recover, increasing the vulnerability to follow-on attacks.
Diesel locomotives, the most common type of locomotive, may be quite vulnerable. The fuel tanks for a diesel locomotive are typically located underneath the locomotive frame, sitting just a foot or two above the ground and right beneath the engine. The tank carries up to 5,500 gallons of fuel. If the anti-tank landmine can trigger the fuel to explode, a relatively small charge could destroy the whole locomotive, along with damaging or derailing more cars too. Depending on the location of the locomotive and surrounding structures, the secondary explosion may cause even greater harm to stations, bridges, signal boxes, rail switches, and more. Of course, even without a secondary explosion, a derailed locomotive in the middle of nowhere would be a big challenge.
Laying the Minefield
The nature of the rail system means only a small number of mines are needed to have significant effects. In typical sea, vehicle, and anti-personnel landmines, the mines need to be spread out over an area, because ships, tanks, and soldiers can just go around a single mine. But trains are confined to their track. Although railroad switches allow detours, the train must follow the track between switches. A single anti-rail mine may deny an adversary use of tens of miles of track, and those miles may be critical to supplying troops on the battlefield. Plus, that means mine layers have miles of options to choose whatever point presents the least risk, and causes the most harm.
The proliferation of commercial satellites makes things even easier. As de Caro’s images of Russian rail bridges show, railways are often highly visible. An open-source analyst psyched about trains can easily map a country’s entire rail system. In fact, that’s been done for the United States. Vulnerable points in the system can be identified well in advance of any conflict. Network analysis techniques and tools used to shatter terrorist networks can also be applied to rail networks to identify critical routes, junctures, and other nodes where landmine placement would maximize systemic harm.
If anti-rail landmines prove effective, no doubt adversaries will develop and field defenses – but anti-rail landmines favor the offense. Compared to a typical minefield, an anti-rail minefield may be tiny: just a couple of planted explosives. That makes detection much harder, especially if the mines are nestled between the wooden or concrete slats that support the rail. Defenders potentially have to monitor and clear thousands of miles of track and would need the equipment, training, and personnel to do so. If train sensors can be easily added to existing explosives, anti-rail landmine procurement costs may be trivial with virtually no opportunity cost.
Building the Weapon
Making a basic anti-rail landmine would not be difficult. Folks in the mid-1800s pulled it off. Probably the biggest challenge is figuring out how much explosive of what kind is most likely to trigger the secondary explosive in the diesel fuel tank. Ideally, Semtex would work fine – special operators already carry that. Sensors would need to be developed and tested to lie upon the tracks to check that a locomotive is coming, and not a person or a car. Vibration, pressure, or magnetic sensors could work. Then just link the sensor to the explosive, add a small delay so the explosive fires when the fuel tank is right overhead, and add some camouflage so the landmine is harder to spot.
For all today’s modern wonders, the basic need to move soldiers from point A to B, ensure they are fed, and have enough bullets in their guns has not changed. Using anti-rail landmines to target the rail system that provide transit can provide significant military gain at low cost.
Dave Chapelle once quipped, “modern problems require modern solutions.” I politely disagree. Sometimes modern problems just require explosives.
Thanks to Dave Kuhn for providing thoughts on the piece.
 Nicholas R. Nethery, “Evolution of United States Military Landmine Doctrine and Employment.” Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College. June 2015, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA624067.pdf.
 William C. Schneck, “The Origins of Military Mines: Part II.” Engineer Bulletin. November 1998, https://man.fas.org/dod-101/sys/land/docs/981100-schneck.htm.
 Daniel Michaels, “Russia Targets Ukraine’s Rail Links for Military Gains,” Wall Street Journal. 31 May 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-targets-ukraines-rail-links-for-military-gains-11653987818.
 Chuck de Caro, “Ukraine: Think Deep Attacks Against Russian Logistics,” Small Wars Journal. 28 June 2022, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/ukraine-think-deep-attacks-against-russian-logistics.
 “National Rail Network Map,” ArcGIS, https://www.arcgis.com/apps/mapviewer/index.html?webmap=96ec03e4fc8546bd8a864e39a2.