Perils of Tunnel Warfare; VietCong Tunnels a Lesson

Pic Credit: Israel Diaries

By Levina

Tunnel rat is a term that brings back myriad nightmarish memories for Australian, American, and New Zealander soldiers. These soldiers, who were called tunnel rats, were trained to search and destroy tunnels in Vietnam, an experience from which not many soldiers survived. Later, Russians faced the same fate as Americans in Afghanistan, and a decade later, Israeli soldiers were faced with the same gargantuan task of clearing tunnels created by terrorists. A humble reminder: neither Russian soldiers (of the Soviet Union) nor American soldiers won the war against their respective enemies, who relied on complex tunnel maze.

In an epoch where we have the best of technology, underground warfare takes us back to the stone-age ways of fighting a war. Being ethical under such circumstances is the easiest route to defeat. There are about 1300 tunnels located under the Gazan cities. On average, each tunnel is approximately 2 m high and 1 m wide and equipped with lights, electricity, and sometimes tracks for transporting materials. The tunnels are often booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices.

The Dangerous Metro:

Nine years ago, during one of the meetings with the Israeli security cabinet, Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving PM of Israel, said that the Israeli Army had thwarted an attack by 200 heavily armed Hamas terrorists who were planning to carry out an attack on Israeli cities. Their plan was to kill, loot, rape, and abduct Israelis on the Jewish high holy day of Rosh Hashanah. The tunnels connecting Gaza to Israeli communities were going to be utilised for this nefarious purpose.

On September 24th, 2014, Israelis were lucky that the terrorist attack was thwarted, but on October 7th, 2023, their luck had run out.

Nobody took these tunnels seriously till 2001, when, during the second Palestinian Intifada, Hamas exploded 200 kg of TNT in a tunnel under an Israeli outpost, which destroyed the outpost of Termit in Rafah. Families living in Rafah are said to know the tunnels intimately, which were initially used for smuggling and later developed into a network of tunnels that ran for many kilometers underground. This network of tunnels has earned an epithet: the Gaza Metro!

Israeli soldiers claim that these tunnels are used for smuggling goods and transporting people. However, the not-so-innocuous purposes of the Gaza Metro include storing rockets, launchers, and ammunition caches. Additionally, these underground structures are sporadically used to house Hamas’s command and control centers, shielding them from the hawk eyes of Israeli surveillance drones and the Israeli Defence Force’s aircrafts.

Two days after Hamas carried out the recent attack inside Israel, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) released a video showcasing the extent of these tunnels to the Israeli military and the world. Below is a screenshot of the rockets stored underground.

Screengrab from IRGC’s video

The IRGC’s video is mind-boggling, and that is the reason it has been released. An ideal case of psyops!

Hamas is aware of the Israeli military’s substantial armament and security strategies, which are centered around preemptive and protective measures. It is also aware that Hamas is a technologically and militarily inferior to Israeli forces.

How does one make a behemoth enemy bend its knees?

A combination of guerilla warfare and psychological warfare is the answer.

Hamas’s strategy is to use tunnels to deliver a devastating blow to the Israeli defense forces, rendering them incapable of mounting a counterattack and leaving the defending side, such as an IDF soldier, without the means to defend themselves or escape from the assault. This situation can be demoralizing for soldiers in a conventional army.

The Israeli Army is presently encountering a behemoth and unparalleled challenge posed by tunnel warfare. It has emerged as one of the most dangerous guerilla tactics ever to be faced by conventional armies like the Israeli armed forces, the US Army, and the Indian Defence Forces. It is common knowledge that terrorists supported by Pakistan enter India through tunnels constructed by smugglers along the Indo-Pakistan border. Smugglers and terrorists continue to create and use such tunnels unabated.

Cu Chi Tunnels, the inspiration:

In the 1960’s, a technologically superior American Army fighting the Viet Cong was baffled by the complex network of tunnels that existed under Cu Chi City in Vietnam. This vast labyrinth of tunnels extended to other parts of the country too.

The Cu Chi tunnels have witnessed some of the most intense battles during the Vietnam War, where American soldiers were faced with an enemy who could escape into thin air in the middle of a chase and fire at them from the secret tunnel openings.

These tunnels (akin to Hamas’s tunnels) served the purpose of hiding weapons, providing safety to the enemy, and placing booby traps for the enemy soldiers who dared to enter them. But Cu Chi tunnels were far more sophisticated than Hamas’s concrete tunnels.

There have been times when American soldiers discovered secret offices, bunker beds for Viet Cong soldiers, and booby traps inside the tunnels. Although the Cu Chi tunnels were significantly more advanced than those in Gaza, the Vietnamese did not employ concrete to line their tunnels. Tunnels in Vietnam, some of which still exist, had frequent turns and twists, as well as booby traps in which cobras, poisonous scorpions, and sharp bamboo knives with human excreta on them were hidden. These measures ensured a painful and slow death for the victims. The Cu Chi tunnels were designed with bends every few metres to disorient any opponent entering the tunnels. Those American soldiers who survived to tell their stories caused a dent in the psyche of others, and fear of Vietnamese strategies. VietCong did not believe in giving the enemy an option of immediate death.

Whilst al Qaeda’s tunnels were located in the mountains of Afghanistan and the Viet Cong’s in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Hamas constructed the Metro underneath one of the most densely populated places on Earth—Gaza Strip.

You may also watch video on tunnels in Kashmir in our video>>

The Economics of tunnels!

In 2021, Hamas claimed that the total length of the tunnel network was 500 km, which is approximately the distance between London and Paris. Albeit the total length of Gaza is just 41 km and it is 6 to 12 km wide, ergo one can safely assume that the tunnel network has been created in layers and in a serpentine manner under Gazan cities. Approximately 2.2 million people live here. If the claim is true, then the Israeli military is already aware of the herculean task it must undertake to destroy the Metro.

According to Israel, Hamas may have spent $30–90 million to construct the tunnel network over the years and may have used about 600,000 tonnes of concrete. Tunnels are reinforced by concrete panels. Ostensibly, for a very long time now, Israeli authorities claim that Hamas has been constructing tunnels by diverting concrete meant for civilian and humanitarian purposes.

How does Israel plan to destroy the Tunnels?

Most of these tunnels have access points located inside the kitchen of a home, in the prayer room of a religious structure, or at times in the most unexpected places, like an animal farm. In December 2022, the United Nations discovered a tunnel under an UN-run school in Gaza. Shocking, but true!

Using civilians as human shields is an age-old tactic used by terrorist organizations. This factor adds to the woes of soldiers of the attacking Army.  Fighting urban warfare is already a complicated affair, and tunnel warfare makes it more excruciating for the conventional army. FIBUA—fighting in built-up areas causes heavy losses for the conventional army. For every five terrorists killed, one soldier loses his life; this figure has remained the same for conventional armies across the world.

In the past, Israel has attempted to eliminate some of these tunnels using other methods, such as combat engineering and the construction of an underground border wall stretching several meters to deter tunnel assaults. Israeli forces also used bunker buster known as the GB U28 against these tunnels during the Gaza War of 2008–2009. In 2021, Israel requested the GBU 72 bombs from the United States to replace its GBU-28.

GBU 72 was developed to overcome hardened, deeply buried targets. The GBU 72 not only obliterates nearby objects but also generates a shockwave capable of inducing caverns in subterranean structures even farther from the intended targets. But bunker buster ammunition is costly; it is said that about 125 units of GBU 72 may cost up to $36 million.

In the Vietnam War, America was using Daisy cutters, a type of fuse designed to detonate an aerial bomb at or above ground level, these were often used with BLU-82B bombs.  Though effective in destroying tunnels, daisy cutters could not deter Viet Cong from constructing new tunnels and traps.

During Operation Guardians of the Walls in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed over 100 km of tunnel network inside Gaza, and 7 months later, the Israeli Ministry of Defence announced that a 65 km underground barrier/wall to deal with the threat of cross-border tunnel assaults along the border with Gaza had been completed.

It is evident that tunnel warfare is employed by the weaker side to wage a war of attrition against the conventional army. Experiences of conventional armies in Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrate that tunnel warfare tactics, over time, result in fatigued soldiers and ultimately compel the stronger opponent to come to the negotiation table. The Israeli defense forces will need to find an avant-garde solution for tunnel warfare.

On July 17, 2014, 23 terrorists from the Qassam Brigade, the military branch of Hamas, survived Israeli shelling but were trapped in the tunnel for 40–45 days. They were taken out of the tunnel in early August 2014, when a ceasefire was announced. This incident is a clear sign that tunnels, even if superficially bombed, still have the probability of remaining intact. Israel’s biggest challenge will be to not have a city under a city in Gaza.

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