Friday, October 3, 2014
"Out of the Depths" During Operation Protective Edge, the State of Israel revised its working assumption regarding the subterranean threat. The former commander of the YAHALOM Unit, Colonel (res.) Atai Shelach, about the lessons learned during the fighting in the Gaza Strip
Much has been spoken and said about the subterranean challenges before, during and certainly after Operation Protective Edge. I was often asked whether I had been taken by surprise and my answer may be divided into two: I was not surprised by the "what", I was surprised mainly by the "how", namely – the operational implementation by the terrorist organizations, when they operated through their offensive tunnels in a manner that was much more extensive than I thought they were able to do at this time.
Admittedly, the Jewish people in Zion possesses very little patience. We love "instant satisfaction" and as such, most of us do not like to put that satisfaction off, or in other words admit that not every problem, as annoying as it may be, can always have an instant solution. This applies even more acutely to the subterranean medium, which I had outlined in the past as an uncharted space that must be explored and charted so that we may operate inside and through it in the future. The subterranean medium is a kind of paradox. It is a phenomenon that the more you address it, the more profoundly you realize that this low-tech challenge calls for cutting-edge high-tech solutions. One would have thought that for such trivial matters as detection, identification, spotting and so forth, solutions are available right on the shelf and it is only a matter of time before they are customized to our needs – but that is not the case at all! Today there is no off-the-shelf solution in existence.
In order to illustrate this issue to the readers, I would like to position this challenge and normalize it a little, compared to serious challenges and gaps with which we have dealt over the past 40 years. The chronological account and the various issues mentioned here are intended to express a main idea, and do not constitute an objective cross-section. During the 1970s we had to deal with severe terrorist attacks, aircraft hijacking and incursions by terrorists into Israeli settlements. The 1980s brought along the emergence of steep trajectory threats and the problem of IEODs in southern Lebanon. In the 1990s, the problems of IEODs and steep trajectory fire – including sources of fire located in in third-circle countries – became even more acute. In the early 2000s we witnessed the worsening of the suicide bomber problem, extensive steep trajectory fire from Lebanon and the emergence of the subterranean threat. In the second decade of the new millennium, the subterranean phenomenon worsened even further and the steep trajectory threat remained intact.
Thus, in a nutshell, I have drawn a list of the operational challenges and phenomena that have been facing us over the last four decades. I have intentionally avoided such nuances as listing dates and specific incidents. Suffice is to review all of those severe incidents that exacted a heavy toll in casualties on the Israeli nation. Considerable time was required in order to overcome each and every one of those challenges and gaps, and to adjust, however slightly, the balance of terror, damage and casualties.
As someone who grew up in a frontier settlement in the Galilee Panhandle, with a part of my family raised and living in the town of Quiryat-Shemona – we grew up as the "Katyusha Boys" of the 1970s and 1980s in the face of frequent rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. Back then, we did not have the Red Alert system or Iron Dome batteries. We did not have protected spaces – only some old-fashioned air-raid shelters, few and far apart. That period was the significant beginning of the steep-trajectory phenomenon which threatened the rear area and the civilians of the State of Israel. Many years had passed before a solution was found for coping with this threat, in the form of supporting infrastructures for the civilians, rules of conduct for the population, the establishment of the IDF Home Front Command that deals with the civilian population and the development of the defensive tiers, beginning with the Patriot missiles, on to the Arrow and Iron Dome missiles, and soon – David's Sling.
In other words, almost 40 years have passed between those events that we had experienced as young boys during the 1970 and this day, and only recently a substantial "package" of solutions has become available, while still not providing a hermetic solution. Take, for example, the threat of short-range mortar fire (as applied against IDF assembly and staging areas during the last campaign): no solution has been found for this threat among the existing solution tiers.
The IEOD phenomenon has also exacted extremely heavy tolls on us, especially during the early 1990s – the second decade of the IDF presence in southern Lebanon, and thereafter, in the Judea, Samaria and Gaza Strip. Naturally – the suicide bomber phenomenon was a serious problem as well.
We, as a state and a military organization (including all of the other defense and security agencies), have found ourselves dealing, over the course of many years, with operational and professional phenomena and gaps that demanded a range of solutions and responses. In all of the cases I have described, the solutions were not found instantly.
Moreover, with none of those challenges has a single "magic" solution been found or implemented. Each problem and operational challenge was resolved through the use of several elements, the most prominent of which were operational activities, behavior patterns and moves, integrated technologies and infrastructures, and the perfection and integration of the intelligence layer and all of the derivatives thereof.
The three primary legs on which the solutions have always been based were the operational leg, the technological leg and the intelligence leg. This proves that there is never a single solution – most definitely not just a technological solution – to the professional problems and national-level threats.
Let's address another example – the suicide bomber terror that threatened us for almost a decade (1994-2004), with varying degrees of intensity. This terror threat exacted an enormously heavy toll of blood on the Israeli nation, much higher than any other national-level operational and professional problem, in my opinion – since the establishment of the State of Israel. It took quite a while for this problem to be addressed and to be almost completely removed from the national agenda.
What were the elements of the solution to that threat? The same three elements I had outlined in my past articles as well as in this article: state-of-the-art infrastructures and technology, the "seam line" fence system along with advanced intelligence technologies that effectively supported the arrest and preventive capabilities, highly-focused operational activities including arrests and the improvement of the routine security capabilities, and, naturally – a 24/7 intelligence collection and analysis effort in that context. Above everything else, there was the concentrated effort at the national level, led by the Prime Minister in those days, Ariel Sharon, which included Operation Defensive Shield, followed by the building of the "seam line" fence system.
So, in coming to address the subterranean threat in the context of Operation Protective Edge, it may be regarded as the watershed, namely – there is no going back from here. During Operation Protective Edge, the State of Israel revised its working assumption regarding the subterranean threat.
Just as we had embarked on Operation Defensive Shield in order to eradicate and minimize the suicide bomber terror, so we have embarked on the first ground move in Operation Protective Edge in order to eradicate and minimize the phenomenon of offensive subterranean tunnels. It is important to note and stress that for the first time in the history of the State of Israel (and possibly in the history of the world) has a state initiated a concentrated national-level operational effort and embarked on a military campaign intended to destroy a military obstacle that had evolved into a strategic threat to that state's security. Moreover, it has embarked on the operation without possessing the tools required in order to eliminate the threatening phenomenon. It has relied, quite naturally, on an operational leg and an intelligence leg, but has lacked almost totally any supporting technological capability for the spotting phase. Nevertheless, it embarked on the operation, and relative to the starting point and the operational objectives and missions specified at the outset, it has been rather successful in locating and destroying all of the offensive tunnels it had been aware of prior to the ground move and during the ground move.
Operation Protective Edge is the national watershed in the way the State of Israel regards the subterranean medium. From here, there will be no turning back. We still have a long way to go before we can find a lasting solution, and it is important to note that this phenomenon applies not only to the southern region. It should be addressed along all of the borders of the State of Israel, as terrorism, by definition, transfers knowledge from one organization to another and permeates like water through soil wherever it succeeds.
I have no doubt that the Israeli defense establishment, headed by IDF, will initiate substantial moves aimed at a force build-up effort with the purpose of further improving the operational capability of handling this threat which, as I have already said, will not remain confined to the southern region: it will trickle to the north and possibly to the east as well. It is only a matter of time.
Accordingly, what we really need is the establishment of a national administration, on behalf and under the auspices and leadership of the Prime Minister's Office, along the same lines as the National Cyber Bureau. Only in this way will it be possible for us to specify a significant national scale of priorities that would allocate the resources required in order to advance all of the necessary solutions – and I am not referring just to funds. What I have in mind is mainly the resource of brilliant minds and the Jewish-Israeli genius. In my opinion, only a national administration will be able to establish a real pool of great minds and specialists, who would be able to set aside their egos, sit around the same table and join forces – for as long as it takes – to develop a plan that would provide the People of Israel with the "Iron Dome system for the subterranean medium."
Ariel Sharon accomplished that in the face of the suicide bomber terror, and Benjamin Netanyahu did the same opposite the cyber threat. Naturally, the entire defense establishment, headed by the Prime Minister in those days, Ehud Olmert, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, delivered the Iron Dome system.
As far as the subterranean medium is concerned, there are no shortcuts. We need to take advantage of the leverage of Operation Protective Edge to set in motion a concentrated national effort that will encompass all of the elements, so that in a few years we would possess most of the tools for effectively coping with this problem, which has most definitely not ended in Operation Protective Edge. In my opinion, it is only beginning.
Colonel (res.) Atai Shelach is a former senior officer in the IDF Combat Engineering Corps. Among other positions, he served as the commander of the YAHALOM Unit, as the commander of the IDF Dignitary Protection Unit and as the commander of the IDF CBRN Warfare Center. Today, he is the CEO of the Engineering Solutions Group (ESG)