(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the author’s. For the writer’s other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)
By Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch
Tunnels have been recently in Indian news on two counts. An article mentioned Indian Army had dug into Chinese warfare manuals and deployed tunnel defences to pre-empt any further transgressions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh. It cited Chinese tunnel defences against Japanese in second Sino-Japanese war, the PLA tunnel shelters for aircraft at Lhasa, and the underground pens for submarines in Hainan Islands, plus tunnels used by the Viet Cong against Americans and by North Korea in the Korean War during 1950s. Obviously the author is unaware that the Indian military has been using tunnels in the past decades including in Siachen Glacier.
The second instance was discovery of three feet wide and four feet high 200-metre long cross-border tunnel with sandbags having Karachi markings that was used by four Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists infiltrating India, who were killed in a gun battle with security forces on Nov. 20 at Ban toll plaza near Nagrota in Jammu district. This was not the first time that Pakistan has used a tunnel to infiltrate terrorists, which are dual purpose; for facilitating drugs and arms smuggling as well.
There is no doubt that tunnels play an extremely important role in conflict – both conventional and sub-conventional. Tunneling for conflict, terrorism, and smuggling is a global phenomenon. North Korea has dug some 103 tunnels under the heavily guarded and well-fenced demilitarised military zone between South Korea and North Korea. Two of these tunnels discovered are large enough to push a brigade-sized force across in one hour with small vehicles.
Israel suffers menace of multiple tunnels made by Hamas from the direction of the Gaza Strip; both offensive and defensive – terror attacks and to deter Israel Defense Forces (IDF) when they enter Gaza Strip. In 2014, Israel launched ground operation in Gaza to neutralize 32 Hamas tunnels, 14 of which crossed into Israel. IDF estimated Hamas spent around $30 million to $90 million, using 600,000 tons of concrete to build 36 tunnels, some individually costing $3 million. The Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam at multiple levels spread over 200 sqkm, enabled resistance forces to fight American forces for seven years eventually forcing the United States withdrawal.
Media reports of Nov. 2011 revealed China’s massive tunnel network (thousands of miles) to hide the increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear arsenal – dubbed “Underground Great Wall” by the Chinese. A detailed study over three years by Georgetown University students made this discovery, their suspicions raised, noticing thousands of radiation technicians were rushing to Sichuan after a devastating earthquake in 2008, and pictures of strangely collapsed hills amid speculation that the caved-in tunnels in the area held nuclear weapons.
Over the years, Pakistan has used tunnels to infiltrate terrorists both across the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB). Six tunnels have been discovered in last four years by the Border Security Force along the Jammu border and overall, at least 12 cross-border tunnels along the IB since first one found in Punjab during 1997. This may not be all the tunnels dug by Pakistan – others may not have been discovered.
In 2017, the then BSF Director General had told media that by end of that year, BSF will have a patrol-less, multi-layered smart fence along its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, as 20 big global firms were undertaking a technical evaluation for the same. But a ‘patrol-less smart fence’ and patrolling along the border is not a complete solution, since some of the tunnels discovered had openings on the Indian side 70 metres to 80 metres on our side of the border and 30 metres to 40 metres deeper than the border fence.
The problem gets more acute when there is connivance on the Indian side to assist drugs-cum-arms smugglers or a combination of smugglers and terrorists, including camouflaging mouth of the tunnel. In 2012, a 540-metre tunnel was found dug into the Indian side, cutting through Pakistan from the zero line. There is no denying it is a mammoth task for the BSF looking after the 200-km border.
Commenting on the latest discovery of the tunnel in Samba area, a BSF official has said that engineers of Pakistani Rangers appear to have helped in its construction. But Pakistan may be working on a comprehensive tunneling system all along the border given that it has had Chinese and even North Korean assistance in tunneling.
In mid 1990s, some 150 North Korean technicians and engineers were developing missile silos in Pakistan. With expertise in tunneling including in the Metok Tunnel, China may well be assisting Pakistan in establishing a tunnel network in Pakistan. Reports in 2017 indicated China was developing some 22 tunnels in Gilgit–Baltistan, where the locals were denied entry. Many of these would perhaps be used for housing and concealing strategic weapons
India’s focus, therefore, must include not only a comprehensive surveillance system but also a tunnel detection system. Following discovery of the 540-metre tunnel in 2012, the Ministry of Home Affairs had tested technology to track tunnels by an Israeli company but found it was effective up to a depth of two metres only.
In August 2014, the Israeli Defense Force announced they had successfully tested a system that could be used to detect tunnels, using combination of sensors and special transmitters to locate underground tunnels. The IDF expected development to cost up to NIS1.5 billion. However, Amir Oren, senior correspondent in Israeli publication ‘Haaretz’ wrote on Apr. 26, 2016 that in another two years, perhaps Israel will have perfected its response to the tunnels.
Subsequently, in 2017, after detecting and demolishing a Hamas tunnel crossing into Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly stated, “I have said several times that we are developing breakthrough technology to deal with the tunnel threat. We are applying that technology. Today, we discovered and demolished it (Hamas tunnel) and we will continue to do so.”
In Jan. 2017, media had reported that testing for ruggedness was in progress for a Ground Penetration Radar at 920 MHz developed by the National Centre for Excellence in Technology for Internal Security at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay in collaboration with other IITs, with field trials in multiple terrains and conditions slated for Feb. 2017. This initial project was for landmine detection, to which the additional requirement of tunnel detection was added.
An efficient Tunnel Detection System must become a priority in India-Israel cooperation in addition to research within India and ‘Make in India’ initiative. Indian Space Research Organisation charting the underground source of Saraswati River in the Thar Desert perhaps can also focus on tunnel detection. As important is the need to develop a tunneling concept at the national level – both for defensive and pro-active operations. As for Pakistan using tunnels for infiltration-cum-terrorism, what is stopping us from doing the same to Pakistan?
(The writer is an Indian Army veteran)