The military created "tunnel rats" to ferret out enemies who operate in the most dangerous terrain imaginable — tunnels. Throughout the history of warfare, tunnel rats have been employed in one form or other. But it wasn't until the Vietnam War that tunnel rats were recognized as a specialty, requiring very special individuals.
During the Vietnam War, the job of tunnel rat was considered so dangerous and stressful that their tours of duty lasted only four months. Who was chosen as tunnel rats? Not Spec Ops, rather regular troops selected for their small, wiry size and mental tenacity.
Usually working alone, at times in pairs, and armed only with handguns and flashlights, these fearless tunnel rats entered complex labyrinths of connecting tunnels under the ground that honeycombed much of Vietnam. The tunnels were used to ambush American troops with great effectiveness. The Americans realized the tunnels had to be dealt with.
The military tried every tactic possible, including bombs, explosives, fire and tear gas. Nothing seemed to work until the tunnel rats went to work. Their success in Vietnam tunnel warfare is the stuff of legend, and they quickly earned the respect of friend and foe.
In law enforcement, let's not reinvent the wheel. Tunnel rats during the Vietnam War invented and perfected the most effective tunnel tactics and techniques. What does this have to do with law enforcement? Everything.
The question remains, are tunnel rats born or made? The answer is both. I'm sure most of us played hide and seek as kids. We quickly realized some kids were better than others, but there was always one kid no one could ever find or hide from. A pure natural who would have made a terrific tunnel rat.
Practice makes perfect — the more experience finding hidden persons/suspects, the better. As in being the big brother tasked with finding brothers fond of hiding or sleeping in the smallest, most impossible locations.
Of course, the LE job of searching for dangerous, hidden suspects is no kid's game. It's much closer to the job of military tunnel rat with deadly danger lurking around every corner and turn. You need the right person with the right mindset, training, equipment, weaponry, and lots of experience to be effective.
The best tunnel rats are usually physically fit, smaller, athletic, agile, wiry and posses the strength, endurance and tenacity of a bulldog. Tunnel rats are "bitter enders" who never give up. They need to be willing to slither along broken glass, rocks, amid spiders, rats, and unthinkable filth. They need to overcome any phobias they have to remain 100 percent focused on the mission of finding and apprehending hidden suspects.
The reality is not all in LE are tunnel rat material. Claustrophobia is real, and often doesn't manifest itself until an individual is faced with having to search a confined space too small or low for any human (except a desperate suspect) to hide in.
Then must then belly crawl along broken glass, amid cobwebs and rat droppings into a darkness your light barely penetrates, quickly losing sight of your entrance point and knowing that somewhere in the darkness an armed suspect waits for you.
While every LEO needs to be capable of searching confined spaces for hidden suspects, some officers will be better at it than others, because they're naturals and experienced. These officers would make good tunnel rats in SWAT.
Tunnel rats should be considered as much a specialty position as breachers/door men and counter snipers/precision marksmen. And while every SWAT officer must be capable of searching confined spaces, every SWAT team needs to have designated tunnel rats who specialize in searching for hidden suspects.
Right about now, many readers are probably thinking the ideal tunnel rat I'm describing is a German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois K-9. And you'd be right, particularly if your team incorporates K-9s for searches. However, even teams who employ K-9s need designated tunnel rats. Ultimately, someone has to eventually stick their "tomato" (head) in there to make sure everything's clear and secure.
Whether you prefer tunnel rats or K-9s is ultimately a choice each tactical team must make themselves, and develop their tactics based on their choice. You must choose the right tool, tactic, or technique to best accomplish the job. Picking the right tunnel rat is as vitally important as picking the right breacher or counter-sniper.
Duty Dangers: Into the Hearts of Darkness
Confined Spaces and Tunnel Rats
Searching for Hidden Suspects