A subway planned for Iraq's capital was never built -- or was it? Saddam's biggest secret may be a weapon of mass transit.
By Richard Muller
Technology for Presidents
March 14, 2003
Nothing undermines technical surveillance like an underground facility -- and the rogue powers know it. Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and al Qaeda all made extensive use of the subterrane to frustrate our remote study of their secret facilities. Now there are rumors of a massive complex of tunnels under Baghdad, a possible storage location for clandestine chemical and biological weapons.
The latest revelation comes from Dr. Hussein Shahristani, the former head of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, who escaped in 1991, but has continued to sneak back into Iraq to aid rebels. In an interview with CBS News, he said that there are over 100 kilometers of tunnels under Baghdad, laid according to the plans for a public subway, but converted to military use. His knowledge is hearsay (he had direct contact with only one person who worked in the tunnels) but plausible. The United Nations inspectors had heard rumors of such a system, but have never been able to locate it. Tunnels are relatively cheap, and extremely effective for hiding weapons and people.
Tunneling for military purposes is almost as ancient as war itself. Originally, to "undermine" was to breach or destroy a military wall from below. Explosives placed in such mines eventually adopted the name mine for themselves. The United States began the modern era of large, deeply buried facilities with the completion of the Cheyenne Mountain complex in 1965 to hold the Operations Center for the North American Air Defense Command. The man-made cavern was deep enough to survive a hit by a small nuclear bomb. It holds 15 spring-suspended buildings, eleven of which are three stories high. It holds resources to sustain 800 people for 30 days. By that time the nuclear war would presumably be over.
Despite its own leadership in the underground, the military was shocked in 1974 by an inadvertent discovery. Soldiers near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea noticed steam leaking from the ground. They dug down, hoping to find a hot spring, but discovered instead a tunnel that came from the north under the DMZ and extended over a kilometer into South Korea. It was made of reinforced concrete and had electric power and narrow-gauge rails. Three additional tunnels have subsequently been found, the most recent one in 1990. It is 145 meters below ground, 2 meters square. If used during a war, it could have conveyed a full division of troops every hour, including equipment. Nobody knows how many undetected tunnels still penetrate the DMZ. They are not easy to find. (Photos of the tunnels can be found online in an excerpt from Major General John Singlaub's book Hazardous Duty.)
Once, large tunnels were dug by heroic miners called "sand hogs" who blasted with dynamite and dug with pick and shovel. Today, the tunnels are ground and scraped by tunnel boring machines, 150-ton monsters that resemble the giant worms of Frank Herbert's novel Dune. These massive vehicles can dig up to 75 meters per day in soft earth, but only a few meters per day in granite. A set of tunnel borers dug the Chunnel in three years. When they finished, the machines were left near the middle, buried deep under the English Channel. It was too expensive to back them out.
Giant worm? A Tunnel boring machine at Yucca Mountain.
In the early 1990s, Libya began construction of a vast underground "fertilizer factory" near the town of Tarhunah. It isn't clear why such a factory need be underground; the U.S. suspected it was designed to make chemical weapons. Indeed, in 1996 two German businessmen were convicted of exporting chemical warfare equipment to the plant. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry told Congress that he would consider using "the whole range of American weapons" to keep the facility from completion. Libya halted construction shortly afterwards.
There were once plans for a public subway system beneath the streets of Baghdad, but it was never built -- unless you believe Shahristani. He says that Saddam took over the project to construct a massive military complex under the city. Its 100 kilometers of tunnels are supposedly used not for transportation, but for military operations, and to conceal Saddam's illegal weapons and materials.
Such tunnels are remarkably difficult to locate. In remote regions, the addits (entrances) can sometimes be spotted when debris is hauled away. If the tunnels are in use, you can spot the infrared emissions from their warmth. You can find them using ground-penetrating radar if they aren't too deep and the ground is dry and uniform. In prior inspections in Iraq such radar found buried missile parts that had been smuggled from Russia. When the UN inspection teams returned to Iraq last November, they brought with them radar systems capable of penetrating the dry desert to depths of 10 meters.
All these methods are essentially useless in city clutter. Addits can be hidden in warehouses; dirt can be hauled away through city streets without drawing attention. The clutter of underground structures in city streets makes ground-penetrating radar and infrared sensors worthless. Information comes only from humint (human intelligence), the gleaning of information from those willing to tell. To keep such secrets secret, you simply forbid interviews with people who know.
Even if the inspectors found tunnels under Baghdad, they would have trouble probing them. Forbidden passageways are easily camouflaged with piles of rubble. Weapons stores can be permanently loaded on rail, and moved kilometers at a moment's notice, with no danger of overhead observation. As every spelunker learns, the three dimensions of an underground complex make it hard to even find your way out, let alone explore and inspect. It is hard to know where you are; the Global Positioning System doesn't work underground. Theseus found his path back out of the Labyrinth only by unraveling a thread (a gift from his girlfriend Ariadne) behind him when he entered. The U.S. Naval Air Systems Command takes the problem so seriously that it has established a Tunnel Warfare Center near China Lake, CA, to train soldiers in underground movement and combat.
I don't know if the Baghdad subway exists, or -- if it does -- whether the U.S. government knows its layout. Shahristani says that an American firm designed part of the system. Did Saddam follow the original design? According to CBS News, those plans are now in U.S. possession. If that is true, then it must have been a difficult decision by the United States to keep the plans secret from the U.N. inspectors. Had the United States showed the plans, Saddam would have learned the limits of our knowledge. That would be invaluable to him if the war reaches Baghdad.
We know that Saddam does have some structures deep under Baghdad. A member of the British Parliament said that when he took an elevator to meet Saddam underground, it went so far down that his "ears popped." A complex subway under Baghdad is just what Saddam needs -- for illegal weapons storage, and -- if necessary -- for his personal escape. He could afford to build such a complex. And if he didn't build this subway, the question becomes, why not?
Richard A. Muller, a 1982 MacArthur Fellow, is a professor in the Physics Department at UC-Berkeley where he teaches a course entitled, "Physics for future Presidents." He is also a faculty senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.