Time to seek tunnel-detection expertise from Israel, South Korea

The recent discovery of an under-construction tunnel running from Pakistan to India near a border post on the international border in the Samba district south of Jammu has taken our security establishment and intelligence agencies by surprise.

Security agencies now fear that more such tunnels may have been dug to push militants, arms and ammunition into Kashmir from Pakistan. The Border Security Force has recorded India’s strong protest over the tunnel to Pakistan rangers.

That the discovery of the tunnel -- below the fence built on Indian territory to prevent infiltration from Pakistan and with oxygen pipes running along its length -- was made by a farmer who chanced upon a stretch of sunken earth, is perhaps a slap on the face of Indian security agencies who have been claiming that barbed-wire fencing and stepped-up vigil on border frontiers have reduced infiltration. That the fence is itself vulnerable was proved in 2010 when, during checking it was revealed that militants, taking advantage of dense fog, had cut nine wires on the Pakistani side and ten wires on the Indian side in a bid to infiltrate, just ahead of Republic Day, prompting authorities to sound a high alert.

Indian security agencies have given the impression that because of strong security measures adopted on the Indian side, Pakistan has been finding it difficult to push militants into Jammu and Kashmir and that is the reason why the ‘enemy camp’ has been forced to think of ‘tunnel infiltration’. This flies in the face of logic. What good are the measures taken if they cannot detect a tunnel (tunnels?) dug underneath?

Indian security agencies claim to be increasingly using  surveillance gadgets like night-vision equipment and thermal devices to track human movement, sensors, hand-held thermal imagers, advanced Global Positioning Systems and other high-tech equipment to detect infiltration bids. Recently, the Indian Army has started deploying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles along parts of the LoC and these, if the Army is to be believed, have been particularly effective in stopping infiltration bids at night. To be fair to the BSF (though not serving as an excuse for any lapses), there has been a raging debate in the past when BSF battalions have been pulled out from border duties in J&K to assist the CRPF to tackle an increasing number of internal counter-insurgency operations, thus ‘burdening’ the BSF and ‘diluting’ its role of guarding India’s vast and volatile borders.

Counter-insurgency Though in the past, a group of ministers on security had recommended that the CRPF should ‘progressively’ take over counter-insurgency duties from the BSF to ease the pressure on the latter, there has been little change on the ground. In May 2004, the CRPF’s inadequacies were exposed when its road-opening party failed to detect an IED on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, resulting in a bus blast that left 33 BSF personnel dead. After the recent tunnel discovery, the BSF is learnt to have approached the Geological Survey of India to freshly map the area to detect presence of long channels under the surface. While that can be of some technical help, can it ensure that in future we will not be in for more nasty surprises like the recent tunnel discovery?

Despite all the expertise and technology that Indian security agencies and armed forces may already have in possession, should India seek specific tunnel-detection expertise from countries that have real-time experience doing such stuff, that too in war or war-like conditions? Major General (retd) G D Bakshi, a combat veteran of several counter-terrorist operations in J&K and Punjab, has said that Pakistan has copied the concept of secret tunnel from North Korea which has been known to build tunnels, some stretching two-and-a-half miles into South Korean territory, in the demilitarised zone. South Korean and US forces have taken counter measures to detect such tunnels.

Apart from South Korea Israel too has such expertise, possibly better at it. Over the years, the Israelis have conducted routine counter-tunnel operations, in the process discovering and destroying hundreds of tunnels of several types in the Gaza Strip along the border with Egypt, allegedly dug by Palestinians ‘as a lifeline’ to supply the blockaded Gaza Strip with food, cattle, electrical goods, fuel, cement, and even cars, sliced into parts and reassembled later.

 The tunnels have also been used to smuggle militants, explosives and weapons. Before a major three-week Israeli offensive in 2008, the number of tunnels were estimated at a staggering 3,000! The tunnels have been run like businesses, with smuggling providing tens of thousands of US dollars in profits for each delivery. According to a 2010 estimate, over 7,000 people worked on over 1,000 tunnels. Last year, Egypt began sealing a series of smugglers’ tunnels between its border and the Gaza Strip.

Considering India’s burgeoning defence ties with Israel, and the latter’s expertise in detecting and destroying tunnels, India should seek Israel’s help in the matter. If a farmer could find a tunnel by chance, there could be many more which have gone undetected. It is far too serious an issue to be brushed under the carpet.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist)

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