Harsh V Pant & Suchet Vir Singh
Technology is essential to border management. But, as the events of October 7 show, a delicate balance between its use and the presence of troops is needed.
Even as the Israel-Hamas crisis shows no signs of de-escalating, the ease with which the much-touted Israeli border defence systems fell apart on October 7 continues to challenge observers and practitioners as they seek a better understanding of what really happened. In one swoop, Hamas took down the technology-driven, modern, expensive, and high-end fencing systems called the “Iron Wall”, which the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had set up along 65 km of their border with Gaza in 2021, to fend off infiltration.
Essentially, the inability of the “smart fence” to fend off Hamas highlights the folly of relying excessively on technology for border protection. Technology and machines cannot replace boots on the ground in precarious border areas. While they are essential elements of modern border management and security practices, there needs to be a delicate balance between them and the physical presence of troops. For India, these events are also significant, given its long and porous borders and history of skirmishes in these areas.
Enabled with state-of-the-art thermal cameras, radars, and sensors, which would ensure real-time responses from remote-controlled machine guns to fend off any infiltration attempts, Tel Aviv’s logic was that the high-tech “smart fence” was impenetrable. Covered in barbed wire and fortified via a deep concrete base to thwart tunnel movement from Gaza to Israel—the 20-foot high wall, built with over 140,000 tonnes of iron and steel at a cost of over $1 billion, took more than three years to complete.
While the Iron Wall was supposed to act as a bulwark against Hamas, the over-reliance on technology or “tech fetish,” as it is being described, came to nought on the day of Hamas’s bloody attack.
According to the IDF, 29 points across the smart fence were breached by Hamas on October 7. While soldiers were stationed at 500 feet along the periphery, they offered little resistance.
A few weeks prior, three battalions of soldiers were moved to the West Bank from Gaza by Israel, making the incursion easier for Hamas. Essentially, the Gaza front was “minimally staffed” at a lower threshold than expected. Hamas took advantage of this troop reduction.
Hamas’s onslaught began by first deploying commercially bought drones to drop explosives on communication infrastructure, remote-controlled guns, and observation posts near the fence. This put the border surveillance and response mechanism into disarray. Hamas then resorted to using explosives to blow up sections of the fence. Finally, they deployed bulldozers to widen the gaps that had been created in the smart fence through the bombings.
This enabled cars, jeeps, and bikes loaded with Hamas fighters to pass through the fence. As the observation posts and machine guns were also taken down, many went across the fence as paragliders. Consequently, Hamas unleashed its string of attacks across Israel, leading to the deaths of many civilians, which then resulted in Israel’s relentless targeting of Gaza and the larger conflict.
In the failure of Israel’s Iron Wall or “smart-fence” lies the overestimation of the ability of technology to guard contentious border regions.
In its quest to establish technological superiority, the IDF underestimated the possibility of a sophisticated combined arms attack from an enemy with a low-technology base. Israel also failed to put in place contingencies to deal with attacks when there could be technology failures or problems while also eliminating the human reaction needed to stymie unexpected attacks. Technological superiority clouded the judgement of the IDF, arguably lulling them into a false sense of security.
These events hold significance for India—given its long history of complicated border management scenarios, skirmishes and conflicts. As a consequence, New Delhi has developed various mechanisms, methods, and contingencies for troop deployment and monitoring in its border areas. This is specifically relevant for the Line of Control (LoC), where, despite various border control mechanisms, infiltration problems persist.
In the context of the evolving nature of warfare and the proliferation of drones, India is also adopting these technologies in its border management systems. Recently, India has started inducting drones along its border regions. India is also trying to deploy “smart-fencing” systems along the LoC, with reportedly the same sensors adopted by Israel in its smart fence.
While comparisons between the borders of India and Israel are difficult given the differences in terrain, border size, harsh nature of winter in India’s context, and dual threats in terrorism and crime—the lessons from Israel and the downside of the overdependence on technology are clear.
New Delhi must move forward assiduously with its border management strategies—maintaining a delicate balance between the presence of personnel on the ground and the dependence and integration of technology. The latter must not override the former.
India will have to keep in mind that terrorists and infiltrators will find new methods of infiltrating and attacking its borders, but the human element will be critical to thwarting them, albeit with the assistance of technology.
The article was first published in Financial Express as Israel-Hamas crisis: Tech alone can’t protect the borders on November 7, 2023.
Harsh V Pant & Suchet Vir Singh, respectively, vice president (studies and foreign policy), and associate fellow, Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
Posted by Mansi Garg , a researcher at IMPRI.