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Operation Protective Edge: Underground Maneuvering

Atai Shelach

This article was published on The subject is how the IDF is destroying underground tunnels used by Hamas terrorists to infiltrate Israel and kidnap soldiers.

The elaborate terrorism tunnel uncovered at the Israel-Gaza border in October 2013 only "scratched the surface". The terrorist organizations have been hard at work, for years, developing a subterranean combat medium that would give them a significant advantage vis-à-vis the IDF. Israeli specialists are trying to develop combat doctrines capable of coping with the expected challenges of the future war.

The subterranean medium is a new and evolving dimension of warfare. It is by no means a stand-alone obstacle, but an entire world of multidimensional warfare. The subterranean medium is already a part of all modes of battle and belligerence.

The need to cope with the subterranean medium calls for a comprehensive approach, one that encompasses most of the content worlds and challenges. One of the main reasons for the opponent's "disappearance" into the subterranean medium is the need to set off the obvious advantages of the typical attacker with regard to such aspects as ordnance, relative strength, full utilization of force, endurance and other technological advantages. So, in coming to deal with the challenge, it is essential that we set forth an extensive range of solutions that would encompass, to the maximum extent possible, all of the operational problems and challenges associated with this medium.

The IDF and Israeli defense establishment have made numerous attempts to develop solutions for both defensive and offensive combat operations in the subterranean medium.

The various types of subterranean spaces have been in existence for decades, in their standard military or guerrilla warfare forms: tunnels, bunkers, fortified localities, command and control centers, missile/rocket launch sites, etc. In the civilian sector, subterranean spaces have been used for such infrastructure and utility systems as sewage, drainage, electrical power supply, transportation, et al.

The term "new" refers to the fact that in the near future, military forces will be required to execute maneuvers under the ground.

In the context of subterranean maneuvering, the subterranean medium is regarded as an "untouched space" – a space that is not fully networked or charted. The conceptual system associated with this space is very partial. An analogy may be drawn between this medium and the depths of the ocean on the one hand, or the expanses of air and space on the other hand, as in the past, they, too, were "untouched spaces".

For example, almost everything above ground is networked with countless manual and automated aids. Consequently, any combat element and/or individual trooper can orientate therein at any given moment, determine their location and that of neighboring forces.

In the not-too-distant future, the subterranean medium will evolve into an even more important operational arena. The subterranean zones will expand and evolve into spaces. They will be used for more and more operational and strategic functions.

In operational terms, more and more enemy combat layouts and resources will be deployed in the bowels of the earth. In order to subdue the enemy, the attacker will be required to possess the ability to access/maneuver into those layouts, then capture and maintain them!

In order to fulfill the aforesaid tasks, the ability to maneuver within the spaces of the subterranean medium will be required.

The excavated subterranean medium has four primary characteristic elements: tunnels used for offensive purposes, smuggling, defensive operations, communication and escape; stand-alone excavated installations; complex excavated installations constituting a part of the enemy subterranean layout, and expansive subterranean spaces used as command and control centers, weapons storage facilities, troop accommodations, etc.

The subterranean medium is an obstacle to all intents and purposes, an obstacle controlled by the opponent, that must be overcome in the context of implementing the ground maneuver mission, namely – capturing and holding the territory. In these cases, the subterranean medium constitutes an obstacle as well as a shelter for the elements dominating it, so the challenge of overcoming it is even greater.

The various categories of the subterranean medium exist at various depths and at various ranges, as determined by their relevant functions.

Various parts of the subterranean medium will contain obstacles. These obstacles are intended to delay and even prevent, at some points, the advance of the attacker's forces through the subterranean medium. It is important to understand and stress that subterranean obstacles can have numerous capabilities and may come in diversified configurations. These capabilities and configurations present a first-rate operational challenge to the attacker as well as to the defender.

It is important to distinguish between the manner in which the subterranean medium is dealt with in the context of routine security operations and the manner in which it is dealt with in the context of preparing for an emergency situation. In routine security operations, the challenge normally involves dealing with tunnels used for various functions, such as the smuggling of arms and goods, kidnapping of servicemen and terrorist attacks involving hostages. In this case, the activity mostly involves border protection operations rather than offensive ingress operations.

In an emergency situation, namely – a full-scale war or large-scale shaping operations, the challenge is different. It no longer involves the spotting, capturing and destroying of one tunnel or another, but complete subterranean spaces where the opponent is located. In order to subdue the opponent and implement the maneuvering mission, the opponent must be reached. In other words – the attacker must operate underground. Such localities already exist in the primary combat zones of the IDF at the present time – in Gaza and in Lebanon. In other theaters such as Syria and the Judea and Samaria district, the field is evolving and the opponent is gaining capabilities.

Without sounding like a pessimist or a preacher, it must be noted that subterranean warfare is a major type of warfare, just like the warfare categories associated with combat operations in urban terrain, in open terrain, in dense/tangled areas or in fortified localities. The aforesaid types of warfare already have structured concepts and combat doctrines associated with them. Accordingly, a new doctrine and new concepts should be developed for one specific purpose: subterranean maneuvering. Subterranean maneuvering will necessitate the entrance of forces on one scale or another into the subterranean focal point. This should take place at several locations simultaneously, so as to fully utilize the operational force the enemy forces attempt to set off by going underground.

Down the Rabbit Hole

As with any other operational challenge, everything begins with intelligence. As far as the subterranean medium is concerned, this issue is important and complex sevenfold. The medium in question is a pristine, "untouched" and uncharted space, so the challenge is even greater: firstly – to determine where the spaces are, and secondly, once they have been spotted, to orientate and command forces operating inside the bowels of the earth.

In addition to providing intelligence and in order to be able to maneuver in the subterranean medium, the attacker should create the basic conditions that would allow it. The following elements are required: concepts and professional instructions, dedicated technology and weapon systems and communication systems enabling command and control of the forces, in addition to command and control at the level of the various command centers.

Subterranean maneuvering will take place alongside "standard" (surface) maneuvering and the activities of the forces operating on the various "levels" will be reciprocal. The two moves must be fully correlated. Each one should complement the other.

So how will this take place? What are the main activities that should be performed in order to maneuver in the bowels of the earth? As I have described, a basic prerequisite for subterranean maneuvering is the ability to spot the various subterranean spaces, chart them and insert forces into them, sometimes from multiple entry points. At present, I am not aware of any ability to insert forces into the subterranean medium except through existing shafts.

The attacking forces will enter the subterranean medium and move through it while relying on existing shafts, openings and spaces, or through openings breached specifically for this purpose, including routes of movement and advance. Today, there is no way to move troopers underground in a safe operational manner, and the only way to do it is through existing, predetermined routes.

Unlike standard (surface) maneuvering, which is based on the movement of substantial forces over expansive areas, in the subterranean medium maneuvering will be based on spotting and accessing specific points. The main operational challenge of subterranean maneuvering is in the ability to spot enemy spaces and targets under the ground and deal with them as an integral part of the standard surface maneuver. For example, an infantry battalion assigned to capture a village or a small town in the Gaza Strip or in Southern Lebanon, in the context of its task assignment, will deploy its companies so that each maneuvering company would allocate a platoon to subterranean movement, based on the accurate spotting of subterranean spaces and targets. The ability to operate simultaneously is the factor that creates a force multiplier at the battalion level. Subterranean maneuvering is a complementary capability of the standard (surface) maneuvering. In current scenarios, it is regarded as a must-have capability that is essential to the capturing of territory, implementing the maintenance of captured territory and maintaining vital areas.

Complex operational issues should be provided with techno-operational solutions in coming to develop the ability to maneuver in the bowels of the earth. Prior to the insertion and entrance, how do you detect and pinpoint the subterranean locality and the openings, spaces and tunnels associated with it? Once these elements have been spotted, how do you get inside in the absence of openings? How do you insert resources and troopers into the locality? How do you access the subterranean space from several openings and directions simultaneously? 

Once the forces have gained access into the subterranean locality, they should find out how to communicate with other forces operating above ground and under the ground and, at the same time, how to move and advance in the bowels of the earth. This issue is by no means trivial, even if one disregards such aspects as orientation and navigation. What about the employment of ordnance? What will be the implications of employing explosive resources in the subterranean medium? Is it possible? How do you go about it?

Even in terms of adapting to the new environment, the subterranean medium presents a challenge: how do you breathe, see and cope with temperature changes? How do you deal, mentally, with the 'black reality' under the ground?

Any commander coming to plan such a maneuver should address the following questions: what about the movement and maneuvering of the forces under the ground? What is the Order of Battle that is relevant and appropriate for this type of activity? At what depths can you operate and move your forces effectively? What are the implications with regard to C3?

Illuminating the Way 

There is a significant operational need for the development of a subterranean maneuvering capability in view of the currently evolving and future threats and operational challenges. The IDF will be required to operate in the subterranean medium more and more intensively in the coming years and decades.

The process of coping with the subterranean medium consists of four primary stages: collecting intelligence, detecting/spotting the subterranean locality, temporarily neutralizing the subterranean locality and finally – dominating, gaining a hold and destroying the subterranean locality and/or providing any other final solution according to the mission assigned to the forces.

Even as it is (above ground), the activity of the maneuvering elements is characterized by a high degree of friction with the opponent and the terrain – all the more so with regard to the subterranean medium. Subterranean fighting is characterized by the need to cope with the terrain and with the opponent simultaneously. Through the subterranean medium, the enemy increases the level of friction and sets off the attacker's advantage. Each course of action available to the attacker is threatened by the combination of terrain features and enemy forces commanding the spaces thorough observation and fire. The sequence of activities that should be performed inside the subterranean space and above it calls for the continuous handling of different tunneling and subterranean characteristics and layouts designed for different functions and possessing different characteristics. The attacker is not only required to detect and identify – a difficult challenge in itself, but also to operate underground, in an "untouched" and unfamiliar space. Consequently, one of the primary threats is falling into the traps laid by the opponent – booby-traps based on the attacker's disorientation under the ground. In the subterranean medium, everything is blocked, and the enemy chose this medium for a reason: it serves the enemy's operational objectives by hindering and damaging the operational objectives of the enemy – in this case the IDF.

In coming to develop a solution for this challenge, we should take into consideration an extensive range of challenges and threats that have one primary objective in common: to create a state of asymmetrical fighting that would constantly set off the attacker's qualitative advantage and empower the capability of the defending enemy. For this purpose, we should thoroughly analyze the operational gaps and provide them with an large range of solutions that would eventually be woven into the ability to maneuver through the medium. The solution should consist of three primary elements: firstly – formulation and establishment of a concept, a combat doctrine, combat techniques and drills; these would provide the compass for the other two elements: intelligence and state-of-the-art technologies.

There is a huge difference between ability and knowledge, between the clear knowledge of and familiarity with surface maneuvering operations and the darkness and uncertainty regarding the subterranean. Today, we suffer from techno-operational blindness that stems from the absence of technological capabilities for spotting the subterranean objectives, and once they have been spotted – for operating down there while ensuring the security of the forces on the one hand and operating effectively from an operational point of view on the other hand.

To my understanding, the issue is currently positioned on the doorstep of the various defense industries which are already hard at work attempting to provide various solutions to this operational challenge. In my opinion, we should act much more comprehensively rather than confining ourselves to the relatively narrow dimension of the routine security challenges.