DoD Advances Countermine Technology
By Maj. Donna Miles, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 19, 1998 As the story goes, Civil War Gen. William Sherman became one of the first military commanders to encounter enemy land mines, as his Union troops advanced through Virginia during his Georgia campaign.
Sherman called the weapons "infernal machines" and berated the Confederates' use as a cowardly act. In retaliation, he marched Confederate prisoners in a column in front of his forces along the route from Yorktown to Richmond.
The Geneva Conventions have long since banned the use of prisoners to clear minefields. Many decades later, however, commanders still struggle to counter the threat posed by land mines.
Mines are a cheap, easy way to divert or stall an enemy advance. For the "have not" militaries of the world, they're viewed as something of a great equalizer -- the proverbial slingshot able to take down Goliath. A field of land mines worth just a few dollars apiece can halt a tank formation.
During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi minefields prevented U.S. Marines from establishing a beachhead, and they were a constant threat to coalition forces throughout the ground war. Land mines killed several soldiers during humanitarian operations in Somalia; they have killed one soldier in Bosnia and continue to threaten NATO peacekeeping forces there.
Despite the fact that 255 million land mines have been produced worldwide during the past 25 years and some 400 million are stockpiled, advances in countermine technology have been slow. The United States entered the Gulf War relying mostly on Vietnam-era countermine technology, according to Brian Green at the Countermine Division of the Army's Project Manager for Mines, Countermine and Demolitions.
Green said the war accelerated several countermine innovations already under development. Rocket-propelled linear charges stretched across suspected minefields, a technology of the 1960s, were replaced by tank-mounted mine plows and rollers able to clear minefields faster and more reliably. The "mine rake," also fielded during the Gulf War, is bolted onto combat engineer vehicles to uncover and push aside land mines buried in the sand.
Green said post-war funding to support countermine initiatives has run hot and cold as U.S. forces have become involved in humanitarian and peacekeeping contingencies. During Haiti operations, for instance, the issue was neglected because little or no land mine threat existed. The land mine issue heated up when U.S. troops died in Somalia, however, and countermine efforts became a national priority as U.S. troops moved into Bosnia.
Troops in the Balkans are using infrared sensors mounted on tanks or 5-ton truck chassis to detect and mark mines by remote control. In addition, engineer units are using a device that sets off land mines magnetically.
But, Green said, the military continues to look for better ways to help field commanders detect, mark and neutralize land mines.
One promising innovation is the Interim Vehicle-Mounted Mine Detector, a string of vehicles that moves at speeds up to 9 mph and detects, marks and detonates metallic anti-tank mines. The South African, French and British armies already use the system. The first of 10 the U.S. Army plans to buy rolled off the production line in early June.
This system will be bridge to the introduction of the Ground Standoff Minefield Detection System in 2003. The future system will detect plastic as well as metal mines. It will use several types of sensors to discriminate between mines and other field debris such as canteens, shell casings and bayonets. The expected results, Green said, are far fewer false alarms and more reliable mine detection and marking.
A hand-held version of the system under development will incorporate an infrared camera into a foot soldier's helmet. Yet another system will pair unmanned aerial vehicles and ultra-sensitive detectors to identify mines from overhead.
Green said these developments will support the whole scope of military operations, whether they're breaching a minefield in traditional combat situations or conducting road sweeps and route clearance in humanitarian or peacekeeping operations.
But Green is the first to admit there are no "no silver bullets" that will guarantee 100 percent protection against the land mine threat.
"It's important to recognize that in operations other than war, the threat is the same as during medium- to high-intensity conflicts," he said. "Our goal is to provide troops in the field the best technology available so they can operate as safely and with as much confidence as possible."