The Defense and Homeland Security Departments are expected to break ground during the coming year on a joint clandestine tunnel detection test site at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
Jason McKenna, senior research geophysicist at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, said the one-square-kilometer facility will provide a safe and sterile environment for technologists who are working on detecting illegal tunnels under the border.
There have been 112 tunnels discovered under the two U.S. borders since 1990. Twenty-four were found in 2008, according to Amy Clymer, senior analyst at U.S. Northern Command and operational manager of the rapid reaction tunnel joint capability development program, which partners with DHS’ science and technology directorate.
Despite the researchers’ efforts, today almost all tunnels are detected by human intelligence — tip offs to law enforcement officers — rather than by technology.
However, Clymer said three have been found using sensors recently. She declined to give details other than two were discovered by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and one by DHS. “We anticipate more in the near term,” she said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement border security conference.
The military has been looking at tunnel detection technology for decades, but using sensors to find cavities underground has proven to be a tough challenge. The two departments began working together about five years ago, but no immediate fix has emerged.
McKenna said finding a catch-all sensor is almost impossible. The program is working on a suite of technologies. Some sensors will concentrate on listening for the telltale signs of tunnel digging or criminals transiting underground. Others will search for the underground passages, themselves.
“There aren’t a lot of silver bullets, just a lot of shiny brass bullets,” he said.
Once tunnels are detected, robots will be employed to go underground to conduct reconnaissance and to map them out for the agents who must follow.
The joint tunnel testing range in Yuma, which he hopes will be operational by the end of this fiscal year, will be used to try out the new technologies. Taking researchers to the often violent border is dangerous and a logistical headache, McKenna said.
The immediate goal is to provide the military and DHS personnel an easy-to-use handheld device. Long term, the program wants the ability to find the passageways from remotely piloted aircraft or other airborne sensors.
The testing range will be an asset for years to come because those who build illegal tunnels will inevitably adapt to whatever technique is employed. As soon as a technology is developed, researchers will have to get busy working on their 2.0 versions, he added.