Analysis: How Israel undermined the tunnel threat

Yossi Langotsky pushed for a geophysics solution to the tunnel threat while the security establishment was insistent on "reinventing the wheel."

Soldiers from the elite IDF Engineering Corps Yahalom unit train for tunnel warfare (photo credit: IDF)
Soldiers from the elite IDF Engineering Corps Yahalom unit train for tunnel warfare
(photo credit: IDF)
Yossi Langotsky feels that poetic justice has been achieved. After many years of being treated as a “public enemy” by the security establishment because of his repeated warnings about the tunnel threat, he is suddenly appreciated and welcome.
Three weeks ago, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot invited him to hear his views on the danger of Hamas tunnels in Gaza and Hezbollah tunnels in Lebanon and how to combat them.
Langotsky volunteered in 2005 to serve as a special adviser to then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res) Moshe Ya’alon, and met since then with all IDF chiefs of staff with the exception of Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who refused to see him.
“After years of ignoring my advice it was refreshing to be invited by Eisenkot,” Langotsky told The Jerusalem Post. “I salute him.”
Langotsky is quite a character and has no fear of public battles about his beliefs and principles. He is a geologist by profession and a fighter in his soul.
In the Six Day War he led a reconnaissance unit in the battles against the Jordanian army in Jerusalem. For his bravery he was decorated with one of IDF’s highest medals. Later he created the special operations department in Military Intelligence and commanded its technological branch. Twice he was given the Israel Defense Prize for his and his department’s innovations.
Together with two other senior intelligence officers, he fiercely campaigned to prosecute Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eli Zeira for exposing Israel’s best agent before the Yom Kippur War. Zeira was then the head of Military Intelligence and later revealed that Egyptian Dr. Ashraf Marwan was a Mossad agent.
Zeira cynically claimed that Marwan was a double agent in order to exonerate himself of his responsibility for the intelligence failure before that war.
In 2007 Marwan was found dead in London. It was most probably the work of Egyptian intelligence, trying to stage his death as suicide.
Langotsky’s accusations proved to be true, but former attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein had mercy on Zeira, because of his advanced age and “contribution to Israel’s security.”
Most recently Langotsky won another battle – this time a very personal one – when a court forced Israeli mega billionaire Benny Steinmetz to compensate him with NIS 50 million.
Langotsky, who teamed up with Steinmetz, discovered the first Israeli gas field in the Mediterranean and named it “Tamar” after his granddaughter. But weeks before the final results proving his finding, Steinmetz unilaterally left the partnership.
But more than anything else Langotsky is identified with his public campaign to find a technological solution to the tunnels threat.
IDF generals and defense ministers politely listened to his opinions and advice, but quickly ignored him. He was considered to be a stubborn pain in the neck for his criticism of the defense establishment, its incompetence, hidden agendas and interests and the inflated ego of the bureaucrats.
He was especially critical of the department inside the Ministry of Defense in charge of the research and development of technological gadgets and weapon systems. “For years they thought that they know better,” says Langotsky, “and ignored my advice that the solution is in the field of geophysics. They wanted to reinvent the wheel.”
Langotsky suggested time and again that the best way to expose the digging of tunnels is by installing underground geophysics sensors, exactly as they are used to discover oil and gas deep underground and undersea.
Such sensors are commercially produced and available in many countries, especially in the US and Western Europe. They track underground sounds and movements of soil.
“All the MoD had to do was to purchase these sensors from the shelves,” he adds, “but they prefer to try to develop the equipment by themselves.”
The ministry R&D personnel failed time and again. Precious time was lost and tens of millions of shekels paid by Israel’s taxpayers were wasted in their futile efforts.
At a certain point the ministry bureaucrats went to the state comptroller and falsely accused Langotsky of serving commercial interests. But then came the 2014 summer war with Hamas (Operation Protective Edge), which showed that Israel had no technological answer to the tunnel threat, although its intelligence was good and helped the IDF to destroy them militarily.
From then on the IDF and Defense Ministry started to take the issue seriously. Most of Langotsky recommendations that had been ignored are now adopted.
Nowadays the IDF is running a three-layer defense shield to detect and find tunnels.
The first one is the simplest one. Heavy equipment was brought to dig along the Gaza border and unveiled tunnels based on accurate intelligence or at random.
The second method employed is to dig holes every dozen or so meters and insert rods with geophysics sensors that detect digging noise and indicate the estimated direction and distance. In ministry parlance, this measure is called a “seismic underground fence.”
Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s leading defense contractors, won the tender worth hundreds of millions of shekels to build it. However, according to Langotsky, “10 years ago I suggested that the state-owned Geophysics Institute would be assigned to the task, to be completed within two years for only NIS 20m.
The third line of defense against the tunnels is the idea to build a deep underground fortified wall. The government has yet to find the budget for the project, estimated at probably more then NIS 2 billion and to take three years.
But the indefatigable Langotsky warns: “The wall is an ambitious idea which still has to be tested for a long period before being proved operational, otherwise it will turn into a ‘white elephant.’”
Furthermore, he believes that the defense establishment has to appoint a project manager to coordinate all the involved parties – and there are too many. His ideal example to be adopted is the Manhattan Project – the creation in the Second World War of the US atomic bomb.
That project, led and managed by Prof. Robert Oppenheimer, who was appointed the project “czar” with overall authority and responsibility.
“This is what we need,” he concludes, “to effectively battle the tunnel threat.”