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Tunnel Provides New Capability to YPG

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The effort to secure America’s borders has commanded attention as a national security imperative for nearly a decade. As civilian law enforcement and military agencies gain ground with extensive fencing, increased patrols and aerial surveillance, drug smugglers have taken to underground tunneling to continue their illicit activities—from rudimentary, shallow holes and narrow pipes that allow drug bundles to be passed through to elaborate structures with reinforced concrete walls and artificial lighting that can be walked through.

Over 100 border tunnels have been discovered by law enforcement agencies since 1990, 30 of which have been found in the past five years. Further, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have used tunneling in their operations against American forces, which makes the threat of particular interest to the military. This was the impetus for the newly opened Joint Tunnel Test Range (JTTR) at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG).

"YPG provides great security for the test site," said Maj. Eric Penrod, combat engineer for U.S. Northern Command, who oversaw construction of the complex. "More importantly, the characteristics of the soil and dry environment closely reflect what we see on the southwest border, as well as what our Department of Defense folks are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan."

YPG’s National Counterterrorism Counterinsurgency Test and Evaluation Center (NACCITEC) was established early in the last decade to test technology that counters terrorist and insurgent tactics in all forms. It gained particular notoriety within the Department of Defense for its realistic mock villages and creating electromagnetic environments that exactly simulate those found in-theater, a crucial component for testing counter-improvised explosive device (IED) technologies. The JTTR is the newest addition to the directorate’s test capabilities. It replicates the kind of tunneling most commonly used by drug traffickers and insurgents, and will be used to support a variety of tests of tunnel detection technologies, from handheld sensors to satellite imaging.

"It is a much-needed test capability in that it is an area our enemies are exploiting, both overseas and by drug traffickers on our borders," said Col. Thomas Payne, YPG commander. "Having the capability to rigorously test technology that detects these unauthorized tunnels is critically important to our security."

"It expands our mission set in an area that is hardly touched by other facilities," added Julio Dominguez, YPG technical director. "Anyone who reads the papers is aware of the threat that tunneling poses, and this gives us the opportunity to have a role in counteracting that activity."

The Tunnel

Initial findings identified the need for a tunneling test complex and the search for a suitable location focused on facilities that had existing tunnels in place. Unfortunately, the tunnels at these facilities were industrial-sized, concrete-lined structures.

"Tunnels like that don’t match the threat we see on the southwest border from small, hand-dug tunnels with either minimal wood shoring or none at all," explained Penrod. "Building a specialized tunnel at YPG turned out to be the best fit for our needs." The first stretch of completed tunnel is a long and cramped with wood cribbing accessed by a corrugated metal pipe shaft. Though deliberately constructed to mimic the kind of low-tech, but ingenious methods of the most aggressive illicit tunnelers, creation of the tunnel took months to excavate and build, and additional months of planning in advance. Soil samples were taken of prospective sites across YPG’s expansive ranges to check for rock and other impediments prior to excavation. "A whole multitude of technologies was used to characterize this area prior to excavation," said Jason Anderson, NACCITEC test director for the project. "We know there is plenty of room for expansion, and that data will be available to our customers who are developing new items."

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) designed and led the soil pre-characterization effort to ensure that testers who use the tunnel will know every property of the soil in the test complex.


With anti-tunneling a critical defense initiative, officials expect that the current tunnel project will be expanded in the near future, and feel that the success of the initial phase bodes well for future additions and testing. "This is a one-of-a-kind complex, and it was completed on cost and ahead of schedule," said NACCITEC director Greg Mitchell. "No other test center has a tunnel test complex like this one to adequately test enhanced capabilities, which will include robotics and other technologies to counter the tunnel threats."

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