A New Reality Meets an Old Obstacle

The ground obstacle system along the border with Syria has been upgraded, but it is still inadequate in view of the new defense challenges. The former commander of the IDF YAHALOM Unit, Col. (res.) Atai Shelach, discusses the required solutions

We are currently experiencing the culmination of a new reality that has been developing right under our noses. The Arab Spring along with the recent geo-political changes around the globe, such as the Russian invasion of the Crimea Peninsula (Ukraine), emphasize the need to remain fully alert and make the necessary adjustments. One of these adjustments involves the adaptation of the obstacle system along our eastern border with Syria. As recently reported, the IDF had reorganized its forces and established a new routine security division (the 210th division) in order to provide an adequate operational solution to the new reality developing along the northeastern border of the State of Israel. This reorganization was an essential – but insufficient – prerequisite. Additional adjustments should be made, particularly with regard to the ground obstacle system. In order to gain an in-depth understanding of how this obstacle system had been created and what its original objectives were, we must go back 40 years exactly.

The territory known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established in April 1974 as the outcome of the agreements between Syria and Israel pursuant to the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. Ever since that time, the DMZ has evolved – in the opinion of many experts around the world – into the widest and most complex obstacle system that exists between countries anywhere in the world. In fact, both parties created cordon upon cordon of minefields of every conceivable type on both sides of the border. Israeli military observers categorized the cordons on the Syrian side into the defensive security cordon, the second cordon and so forth, while on the Israeli side, the Golan Heights were crisscrossed by many hundreds of minefields. Roughly estimated, the obstacle system created in this area is almost 20 kilometers wide – 10 kilometers on each side – and extends along the entire length of the Golan Heights, from Mount Hermon in the north to the border triangle in the south. The widest sectors are located in the central part of the Golan Heights, with the town of Katzrin serving as the center point of this sector.

What was the intended function of this obstacle system? It was designed to provide protection against the invasion of maneuvering elements of the Syrian Army – a nightmare that had almost come true during the Yom-Kippur War. One element of this system had not been built very solidly until two years ago – the fence itself. The fence was very basic and extremely vulnerable, as no one had envisioned any significant threat involving intrusion by outlaws, civilians and terrorists, such as the intrusions encountered in the early 1980s from Lebanon or even previously, in the 1970s – during the “hot pursuit” period – from Jordan.

Ungoverned Areas

Much has been said about the situation that is currently developing in the area that until recently was the defensive security cordon on the Syrian side, those ungoverned areas where terrorist organizations are consolidating their hold, with the most worrisome organization being Global Jihad. According to various estimates, before long those rebels will shift the barrels of their weapons away from Assad and point them at the State of Israel instead. However, those “barrels” will not come in the shape of “an invasion of maneuvering military elements”, but as terrorist attacks of various types, and that is what we should prepare for – not just with regard to the structure and organization of our forces, but also by adapting the obstacle system to the evolving threat.

Another peek at the existing obstacle system and its shortcomings: firstly, on the Syrian side, we left a “bank” of high explosives just for the taking. These minefields (ours as well as those of the Syrians) are the equivalent of a factory producing high explosives, free of charge, for anyone interested in them.

Those mines can be easily retrieved and adapted to various terrorist purposes, either as mines laid to block routes against our advancing forces, or as raw material for the fabrication of improvised explosive ordnance devices (IEODs), plus many other uses.

On the Israeli side, the Golan Heights area abounds with unnecessary minefields that constitute a severe safety hazard and even have the potential of being abused by criminal elements within the population – but that is not the main problem. The main problem stems from the fact that in order to cope with the threats evolving opposite the Golan Heights, our forces should acquire maximum operational flexibility, mobility and availability. They should be able to reach any point promptly, and that includes the movement of light or armored vehicles toward suspect elements.

At present, in most cases, the existing minefields are not only counterproductive – they actually interfere with the operational movements and activities of our forces.

The routine security sectors around the Gaza Strip and near Eilat, and even opposite Jordan, set a good example in this context: they hardly contain any minefields as part of the defensive doctrine and obstacle system. In those areas, where minefields did exist (and they were very, very old), most of them have been cleared. In other words, a revised operational concept, reorganization of the forces, incorporation of cutting-edge technologies and a suitable ground obstacle will provide us with the appropriate operational mix.

“Recalculating Route”

The new fence system erected along the border on the Golan Heights in the context of Project Sha’on Hol (hourglass, in Hebrew) by the Ministry of Defense, although it is far superior to the previous fence system, had been built, fundamentally, in order to serve the operational concept of blocking popular demonstrations and rioting mobs – not against the evolving, increasingly strengthening terrorism threat we are currently witnessing.

It is not my intention to allege that things are not getting done, but it is important to highlight some central issues that call for significant improvement in the overview of the required obstacle system. So, to conclude what I have suggested up to this point, we need to “recalculate our route”. Even if it takes a few years to complete, we must have a master plan that upholds most of the insights outlined above.

Firstly, we must initiate an in-depth examination and reassessment of the existing minefields throughout the Golan Heights while being ready for a comprehensive revision, namely – a significant clearing and rearrangement of the existing obstacle system so that it conforms to the various routine security challenges.

At the macro level, it is important to understand that a complex obstacle system originally built to deny the opponent the ability to maneuver is not necessarily suitable to routine security needs – especially 40 years after it had been built. In mathematical terms, we have here an equation that does not converge, so, admittedly, it is impossible to erase and rebuild everything afresh, but reality must not be ignored, namely – the toolbox must be revised. A new obstacle system should be erected that is capable of making it difficult for the opponent and even preventing him from fulfilling his evil intentions, while allowing our own forces to operate freely and effectively.

The fence system is new, strong and effective, but it is surrounded by a mostly outdated “farm” that is not only counterproductive, but even poses difficulties to operational activity.

Let’s zoom out of the ground obstacle and fence system for a minute, and examine what else is required. Firstly, we require surveillance/observation elements, both technological and human, to cover the entire sector with no blind spots and to all ranges. Secondly, we require the ability to promptly close the fire cycles when required. Thirdly, we need agile forces, either mounted or on foot, capable of responding promptly and reach any suspect point within an operationally-relevant timeframe.

Moreover, it is important to provide convenient combat zones in various areas along the fence. Today, owing to the reasons I have described sometimes the actual conditions on the ground are incompatible with the operational needs.

Reorganizing the actual ‘"playground" is highly significant. Evidently, more and more areas that are currently cordoned off because they are mined or suspected of containing mines should be released for the benefit of a more effective utilization of the space. This will be a substantial but one-off investment that would yield long-term savings. Substantial resources have been and are being invested in maintaining the obstacle system the best part of which is no longer relevant. There are numerous trenches and fortifications that had been excavated all over the Golan Heights that currently constitute "white elephants", offering hardly any operational benefit.

The threat evolving on the Syrian side, in the form of terrorist organizations that operate in ungoverned areas has already led the decision makers within the Israeli defense establishment to reorganize the operational forces, revise the operational concept, build and reinforce the fence system and introduce numerous and diversified technologies, from state-of-the-art operations centers through cutting-edge data fusion systems to weapon and surveillance systems capable of promptly closing the sensor-to-shooter cycle.

I have emphasized the need alongside the activities that have already been carried out in the context of rebuilding and reorganizing the ground obstacle system, of which the minefields scattered throughout the area are a prominent feature. The process I have recommended will yield three major benefits: as far as the operational aspect is concerned, a current obstacle system that conforms to the operational doctrine will improve operational effectiveness. As far as the tourism safety aspect is concerned, fewer minefields will offer improved safety to civilians and enable promotion of local tourism. Finally, the process will minimize the chances of readily-available, unsupervised explosives reaching the hands of criminal elements. 

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