You know the scene at the end of The Incredibles—and the start of The Incredibles 2—that has the troglodyte supervillain the Underminer bursting out from underground in a colossal drilling machine? Well, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was actually developing just such a digging machine, a brutal, nuclear-powered beast called the Battle Mole. At least, it seems like they did.
The Battle Mole was a type of vehicle known as a subterrene—essentially, the land version of a submarine. If you’ve ever tried to dive into your backyard the same way you’d dive into a pool, you know empirically that the process of travelling through the Earth’s crust is far more difficult than travelling through water, which is largely why subterrenes aren’t very common.
Tunnel boring machines are related to subterrenes but are different in that they’re tools for digging tunnels, not vehicles designed to transport people and cargo by digging tunnels. These sorts of machines had been imagined in science fiction literature for years, notably in Russian author Grigory Adamov’s book Conquerers of the Underground, which was hilariously machine translated in this article as “Winners of the Bowels.”
Real-world development of such machines was happening in the 1920s and 1930s in a variety of countries, including Germany, Russia/the Soviet Union, and the United States, but I want to focus on Soviet developments since there’s the most evidence there that they resulted in the creation of an actual vehicle.
In the 1930s, Soviet inventor A. Trebelev developed a subterrene that was, at least in part, developed by studying X-rays of a mole. I’m having trouble determining the actual size of this machine, and if it was remotely controlled or piloted.
Some sources suggest it was crewed, but the one picture I found of it lacks a good reference for scale; is it a small device, a few feet long, as it would appear to be, or is this image of a much larger machine, an actual vehicle? A cutaway drawing in an image I found of a contemporary magazine spread clearly shows a pilot’s position, and another guy just standing around inside! Perhaps this was an actual, crewed vehicle.
While Trebelev’s machine was capable of travelling through solid ground and making tunnels, it was realised that the best way to accomplish this task was with the use of extreme heat on the digging end of the subterrene. Generating enough energy capable of producing such heat was highly difficult until the advent of nuclear power.
By 1964, using a nuclear reactor similar to the type used for nuclear submarines, the Soviet Union allegedly built their Battle Mole, likely the first fully-realised solid-Earth boring military vehicle.
The goals of the Battle Mole were secret, but some sources suggest that Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev wanted the Battle Mole built as a way to attack and destroy American underground military facilities, communications infrastructure, and installations like underground missile silos.
I do love some of the machine-translated descriptions of the weapon and its goals, which can be pretty dramatic:
“Maybe the extravagant Khrushchev dreamed that the time would come and the steel Soviet fist would crawl out of the ground right on the lawn at the White House in Washington? That will be a mother’s mother!”
Yeah, that would be a mother’s mother.
Allegedly, the Battle Mole was about 3.66m in diameter, and about 22.86m long. It held a crew of five and around one ton of cargo, which would likely be explosives and/or other weapons. Using its reactor to melt material in front of it as it drilled and flow that material behind it, the Battle Mole could dig through solid rock at speeds between about 4 to 8 MPH.
That’s pretty damn fast for going through solid rock.
There’s a cutaway drawing and some speculative renderings of what the Battle Mole may have looked like, but I’ll admit I’m pretty sceptical about the accuracy of these.
One of the most alarming missions planned for the Battle Mole was to send it off the California coast, where it would burrow into geologically unstable areas to plant nuclear charges that could be detonated to cause earthquakes, tsunamis, and other wildly destructive events.
Tests of the Battle Mole in the Ural mountains seem to have been successful, with the Mole said to have gone through rock like “a knife through butter,” and it was able to destroy a test underground bunker successfully.
Things eventually went quite badly for the Battle Mole, with reports of the machine exploding while underneath the Ural mountains, killing everyone on board and bringing the project to a halt. As the Russian news site RG.ru reports,
“However, during the next tests in 1964, a car that penetrated the Ural Mountains near Nizhny Tagil for a distance of 10 km, for unknown reasons, exploded. Since the explosion was nuclear, the apparatus with the people in it simply evaporated, and the broken tunnel collapsed. In the press was the name of the deceased commander of the “Battle Mole” - Colonel Semyon Budnikov. But official confirmation of this never sounded. The project was closed, all documentary evidence of it was liquidated as if nothing had happened.”
Now, I’ll be honest with you here—I’m not sure how much I trust a lot of these sources. I do think there were certain experiments conducted, and I think Trebelev’s machine existed, but I’m not entirely convinced about the conveniently destroyed Battle Mole. Part of my scepticism comes from passages like this, describing why the Mole may have been destroyed:
“Or maybe another civilisation exists literally under our feet? And the guards did not want the Soviet “mole” to penetrate the forbidden limits. After all, the technical characteristics allowed the “Battle Mole” to reach the centre of the Earth. Therefore, a unique underground machine was destroyed. And the mystery of the long-standing Soviet project is unlikely to ever be fully revealed.”
Now, if we at least accept that significant R&D was expended in the development of such subterrenes, which seems reasonable, then that brings up some interesting questions. Questions like was the Russian military expert Viktor Baranetz serious when he talked about nuclear “mole” missiles on the U.S. shoreline?
In March of 2017, Baranetz told the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda this:
“And we are quietly ‘seeding’ the U.S. shoreline with nuclear ‘mole’ missiles (they dig themselves in and ‘sleep’ until they are given the command)[...]”
Kremiln spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested that the newspaper wasn’t a reliable source, and dismissed Baranetz’ claims. Still, isn’t that exactly what they’d do and say if the decedents of the Battle Mole were real?
Did anyone feel a rumbling just now?