Asymmetric warfare is an interesting thing. The non-conventional tactics developed by weak states often present unique challenges to their stronger opponents. For one, the conventional might of developed countries is often completely ineffective in taking on these new threats. This in turn leaves them scrambling to find innovative solutions: new tactics, or even brand new technologies.
Israel’s twelve-year-long conflict with the Hamas regime of Gaza has been one enduring saga of asymmetric tactics being thrown at one of the most cutting-edge militaries in the world.
No one can say the Hamas military arm isn’t trying. The terror group has developed a variety of tricks to use against its Israeli enemy, including methods in infiltrating the country via its coastal border. The Hamas Frogman Corps, estimated to stand at approximately 1,500 troops, has been dedicated solely to this purpose.
Of course the most complex effort of Hamas in circumventing Israel’s conventional capabilities has been its massive tunnel-digging operations.
Gaza has a long history with tunneling for illicit activities. Gazans have been using tunnels regularly since the mid-1990s, when they were dug under the Gaza-Egypt border in Rafah for smuggling purposes. By 2001, and again in 2004-2005, Hamas terrorists used tunnels to plant explosives under IDF installations back when Israel still maintained a presence in the Strip. When Hamas came to power in 2007, the tunnels were greatly expanded, numbering as many as 2,500 at their peak. Most of these terror tunnels ran between Gaza and Egypt in the area of Rafah. Tens of thousands of rockets were smuggled in Gaza via these underground passageways, 11,000 of which were fired at Israel between 2005 and 2013. Israel’s military operation in the summer of that year destroyed a large part of this underground infrastructure. Egypt, who also has a stake in preventing Hamas from arming itself, has contributed to this effort. By 2016, the Egyptian military claimed to have destroyed over 1,500.
But after years of terror tunnels being a sort of “phantom menace” for Israelis, a target that was thought to be undetectable, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has seemingly come up with a definitive solution—the effects of which may go way beyond the Middle East.
Over the past year, the IDF began identifying and destroying terror tunnels at a rather astonishing rate. Since January of this year, the IDF has hit a variety of tunnels from smuggling tunnels that extend into Egypt, to attack tunnels that penetrate into Israel. On 11 October, IDF forces reported identifying and destroying the latest tunnel that entered 200 meters into Israeli territory. According to an IDF spokesman, 15 tunnels have been located and destroyed over the past twelve months.
The technology behind this terrific achievement is the product of one of Israel’s premier military tech manufacturers, Elbit. The famed defense contractor, which already has a large portfolio of international clientele, developed a platform that can detect with high accuracy early stages of any deep underground activity. According to Israel’s defense ministry, Elbit’s system has brought about a “turning point” in the fight against Hamas’s terror tunnels. What used to take large patrols of soldiers scouring a border area of hundreds of square kilometers, can now be done with relative ease through computers and electronic sensors. Is the system foolproof? Of course no one can say for sure. Hamas on its part has been developing potential methods of construction that may make it harder for the new system to pinpoint activity. This fact was made apparent upon examining the remains of the tunnel destroyed last week. But there is no question that the Elbit platform is a game-changer.
Now that the technology seems to be working for Israel, other countries have apparently shown interest in applying it to their own underground security problems. If the Elbit does get the green light from Israeli authorities to ship its system to other nations (the detection technology, which was developed in partnership with the government, is still highly classified), it could spell great breakthroughs in security struggles in many parts of the world. One often cited example is the drug smuggling scourge from Mexico that has been plaguing the U.S. The threat of cross-border tunnel attacks has also been an ongoing issue in the Korean Peninsula.
As tech magnate Peter Thiel says, technology is all about doing more with less. Israel’s new groundbreaking system may end up doing a lot more than detect terror tunnels along Israel’s Western border.