TEL AVIV — In a country surrounded by instability and strife, where threats to its borders have come from the air, by sea, on land or underground, Israel is a veritable test lab for anti-infiltration technologies and operational concepts.
Along all of its borders, Israel has deployed or is in the process of deploying integrated command and control networks of sensor-fused barriers — mostly 5-meter-high fences, but in some limited places, concrete walls — all supported by combat assets of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Altogether, security sources here estimate that Israel has invested tens of billions of shekels to secure more than 600 kilometers of frontiers with Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Egypt and, most recently, its northern and southern stretches of border with Jordan.
In the West Bank and the East Jerusalem environs alone — where de facto borders are not recognized by the international community — an Israeli Ministry of Defense source estimated security costs at 14 billion shekels (US $3.6 billion) over the past 15 years.
But despite the high-tech fortress that Israel has built around itself to safeguard its sovereignty, it remains vulnerable to underground threats. Given the magnitude of the threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken about the need to deploy "an underground Iron Dome" to defend against subterranean intrusions.
Painful lessons from the 2014 Gaza war exposed Israel’s unpreparedness in the face of infiltration and assault tunnels stretching more than a kilometer inside Israeli territory. In that 50-day war, Israel destroyed 32 tunnels, losing dozens of soldiers in 17 days of nearly house-to-house maneuvering ground operations.
Since then, Israel has fast-tracked prewar development plans for a number of technological solutions aimed at detecting, mapping and operating in the subterranean environment, spending about $200 million in the process. Earlier this year, through improved operational and technological methods — most of which remain classified — Israel discovered another two tunnels reaching into its territory from Gaza.
With some up to 50 meters deep, many tunnels are supported by more than 500 tons of cement arches and come equipped with communications lines, filtration systems and hydraulic cables to transport weaponry. And at 2 meters high and 1.5 meters wide, gear-laden fighters are able to walk or run through such tunnels to kill or kidnap unwitting soldiers or civilians.
"Tunnels are just one of the challenges we face, specifically at the border with Gaza," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman. "We’re making extensive efforts to try to locate these tunnels through a combination of intelligence, technology, boots on the ground and heavy engineering capabilities."
Israeli soldiers operate within the Gaza Strip to find and disable Hamas tunnels and eliminate their threat to Israeli civilians.
Photo Credit: Israel Defense Forces via Flickr
In a recent interview, two Pentagon officials said the US has been working with Israel since 2008 on counter-tunnel technologies. In 2016, the Pentagon received $40 million to expand the bilateral program, about $33 million of which has already been spent.
The $40 million in congressionally appropriated funding is for two years, with Israel expected to fund an equal amount in cash or in kind. "Our mandate is that this is to be 50-50 cost sharing and that our tasks have to be mutually beneficial," one of the Pentagon officials said.
The joint program is being implemented on the Israeli side by the Defense Ministry’s MAFAT directorate for defense research and development. On the US side, it is being implemented under a teaming arrangement between three Pentagon organizations, under the supervision of the office of acquisition, technology and logistics, as well as the office for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
The two sides meet every six months to chart progress, and they recently updated a memorandum of understanding to allow for extended cooperation through 2025, provided congressional funding continues to flow.
In mid-November, a Pentagon team visited Israel to review five separate, ongoing projects and to discuss a possible sixth project to begin in 2017 — all geared toward detecting, mapping and operating in the underground domain.
"This program is focused exclusively on developing new technologies and systems. If and when they are ready for production — and we understand they may have had a breakthrough in this regard — then that will require a separate funding stream," one of the officials said.
He added that all Pentagon labs are represented in bilateral meetings, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
In a November 23 interview, an IDF general officer confirmed that the two sides met the previous week to chart their program for 2017. He also acknowledged progress in the anti-tunnel realm, yet declined to provide specifics.
"We’re working hard; we’re testing and I can tell you there has been progress," the officer said. "This is not a threat exclusive to Israel, but one that we’ve been engaged with in a very intense way. But fruits of our joint work with Washington will also support US interests, given the tunnel threat in Mosul, Raka, Afghanistan or even along their southern border."
In addition to its border with Gaza, Israel has recently deployed a border barrier along some 215 kilometers of its desert frontier with Egypt to guard against Islamic State forces and other militants operating in Sinai.
Like the sensor-fused barrier fence along the Gaza periphery, the border barrier with Egypt is supported by an integrated multi-sensor command-and-control network provided by Elbit Systems. The network is an extension of Elbit’s Digital Army Program that has been operational with the IDF for about a decade.
"We are the leading border protection activity in Israel. We are delivering our solution obviously to the IDF, but not only," said Udi Vered, Elbit executive vice president and general manager of the firm’s Land and C4I Division.
According to Vered, the C4I network guarding Israel’s borders integrates a full spectrum of sensors, not all of them provided by Elbit. "We have great experience in integrating existing sensors and it doesn’t matter who is the subcontractor or the manufacturer of those sensors," he said.
Similar capabilities have been provided by the firm’s Fort Worth, Texas-based facility, Elbit USA, to secure the US southern border under a $145 million border surveillance program called Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT). Like the systems in place along Israel’s borders, IFT provides border patrol agents "long-range, 360-degree, all-weather, persistent surveillance capability … with a high degree of situational awareness," according to the company.
Different Threats From the North
At Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and territory in Syria that is now controlled by anti-regime extremist groups, Israel is wary of the possibility for tunnels but is focusing its efforts for a different threat: a full assault by Lebanese-based Hezbollah or its allies.
"Up north, we view the threat differently," Lerner said. "The topography is completely different, so what we’ve done on the border with Lebanon, we’ve created artificial cliffs that create an extremely difficult terrain for forces to easily storm into a civilian community or a military base along the border."
Lerner noted there are 22 civilian communities "literally in arm’s reach" from the border, which required a different, three-part defense mechanism: the physical border itself, which extends above and below ground; advanced surveillance capabilities for early warning; and crack rapid-reaction forces to respond to any threats.
"Radical Islamic elements at our borders make them extremely volatile and unpredictable. We need to be ready for potential spillover at any given moment," he said.
Fortification of Israel’s northern border began more than a year ago and is an ongoing project. In parallel, Israel has prepared an evacuation plan should the border come under attack.
"If Hezbollah forces storm into Israel, they’ll find themselves alone facing the full might of the IDF," Lerner said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.