Senate Defense Debate and Subterranean Threats

Senate Defense Debate and Subterranean Threats
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The Senate is expected to pass its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 this week, and shortly thereafter to bring the Appropriations’ Committees defense bill to the floor. Although media attention on these bills has understandably focused on disputes such as the proposed use of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund to evade sequestration-imposed spending limits and the fate of weapons systems such as the A-10 Warthog, one smaller provision merits attention for its potential effect on both future U.S. military operations and the security of Israel. 

Section 1272 of the Senate’s NDAA requires the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on “the feasibility and advisability” of joint U.S.-Israeli cooperation on developing an anti-tunneling defense system, which would be due 180 days after enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act. The impetus for this provision stems from last summer’s war between Israel and the terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip, Hamas. As Israel undertook an air campaign to counter the growing number of rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli population centers, Hamas launched cross-border raids into Israel with the intent of attacking Israeli villages and kidnapping Israeli civilians and soldiers. Utilizing 32 assault tunnels, 15 of which reached as far as 1.5 miles into Israel, Hamas executed six tunnel-based infiltration operations, in four cases engaging Israeli forces and killing eleven Israeli soldiers. The tunnels posed a significant tactical challenge for the IDF, proved difficult to target and destroy, and forced the IDF into a ground offensive it had not planned for and which resulted in the majority of IDF casualties in the conflict.

Although the Senate Armed Services Committee should be commended for the intent behind this provision, it does not go far enough towards addressing a threat that has potentially significant consequences for both the United States and its ally. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deserves credit for bringing the NDAA to the Senate floor more promptly than his Democratic predecessor, yet it is still highly improbable that any report on the feasibility of U.S.-Israeli anti-tunnel cooperation will be available before 2016, a delay that will be compounded by the inherent bureaucratic delays that accompany any new joint research and development endeavor. Unfortunately, while DOD investigates and writes a report, America and Israel’s adversaries will be digging: Hamas was already boasting about rebuilding its attack tunnels last October, and Hezbollah is believed to be constructing tunnels on Israel’s border with Lebanon. 

Countering the threat posed by subterreanean warfare is not only important for our ally’s security, but for America’s as well. Although tunnel warfare dates back to biblical times, it is being employed with increasing frequency by modern irregular forces and potential U.S. adversaries. Defectors have reported that North Korea has built 21 infiltration tunnels under the De-Militarized Zone into South Korea, with only four having yet been discovered. For more than a decade, Iran has been building extensive nuclear facilities in networks of underpasses and bunkers across the country to protect them from potential Western airstrikes. Taliban forces in Afghanistan have exploited karez networks – traditional underground irrigation systems – in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, al-Qa’ida aligned Islamist militias from Somalia to Syria have utilized tunnels for both offensive and defensive purposes, and the Islamic State used explosive-laden tunnels in its recent capture of Ramadi. Since Operation Desert Storm, adversaries have learned to move into built-up areas to evade U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and deter strikes with large munitions by exploiting densely-populated civilian areas. As U.S. forces become more adept at engaging targets in urban areas, the next logical asymmetrical response for irregular forces will be to move underground to tunnels.

The ability to detect and destroy tunnels is not only critical for U.S. forces deployed abroad, but for addressing threats on our borders as well. Mexican traffickers rely on cross-border tunnels to smuggle persons and drugs into the United States, and according to the Congressional Research Service there has been an 80% uptick in tunnels detected on the border since 2008. Their use has increased not only in frequency but in the sophistication of the tunnels themselves. One tunnel discovered in November 2011 in San Diego, California, stretched 612 yards in length, boasted electric rail cars, lighting, reinforced walls, and wooden floors, and its discovery resulted in the seizure of 32 tons of marijuana. U.S. officials have acknowledged in congressional testimony that law enforcement currently lacks the technology to detect sophisticated tunnels due to factors including soil conditions, tunnel diameter, and tunnel depth. Thus, the ability to detect and destroy tunnels may have significant repercussions for homeland security as well.

A feasibility study seems unnecessary given that the United States and Israel already cooperate extensively in defense research and development. The most fruitful joint U.S.-Israeli program to date has been Israel’s intensive cooperation with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency that began in 1988 and produced the Iron Dome system. But there are also currently 37 data exchange agreements in effect – including 23 with the Army, six with the Navy, and five with the Air Force – under a 1987 Memorandum of Understanding between Israel’s Ministry of Defense and DOD’s Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics directorate. Similarly, the joint development of an anti-tunnel defense system could conceivably fall under a 1994 U.S.-Israeli counterterrorism Memorandum of Agreement that outlines the joint development of technologies and systems for fighting terrorism.

Given the potential breadth and immediacy of the threat posed by subterranean warfare to the United States and its allies, Senator Kelly Ayotte and fifteen co-sponsors have proposed an amendment that specifically authorizes a partnership between the United States and Israel directed towards detecting and destroying tunnels. Not only should the Senate adopt this amendment, it is should also go a step further and specifically appropriate funds to this end. Even if Israeli media reports on the successful testing of a new counter-tunnel system are accurate, the United States could offer to subsidize the anticipated $122.5 million cost of constructing the system along the 35-mile border between Gaza and Israel as it does with Iron Dome. Yet although the House authorized a measure similar to the Ayotte amendment in its NDAA, it failed to appropriate the necessary funds authorizing $40 million for such a venture. 

Authorizing and appropriating funds for an anti-tunnel partnership – which could be expanded to other affected allies such as South Korea – would not only reiterate the strength of the U.S.-Israeli security cooperation despite the spate of recent political controversies between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but would signal to Hamas and Hezbollah that their attempts to infiltrate Israel via tunnel will ultimately prove futile. It will also strengthen U.S. border security and better prepare U.S. forces for the inevitable day they face an adversary that seeks to gain the upper hand by maneuvering below them.

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