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A Primer on Landmines and Their Removal

Some 700 different models of mines can be found worldwide. Designs differ widely, especially among those mines developed over the past 20 years. The most common landmines are the millions made for use by the militaries of such big powers as the former Soviet Union, China, and the United States and sold around the world. More than a dozen industrialized countries, including Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, and Yugoslavia, have also produced and sold or given away significant numbers of mines.

The major practical distinction among different types of landmines is their intended target. Mines big enough to destroy vehicles are known as anti-tank mines. These mines, roughly the size of large stove-top pots and pans, contain 10 pounds or more of high explosive. Considerably more prevalent, anti-personnel mines are roughly the size of cans of tuna. Containing anywhere from less than an ounce to a half-pound or more of high explosive, they are designed to maim or kill individuals or small groups on foot.

Mines also differ in the cruel cunning of their designs. Sophisticated mines of all sizes may, for instance, incorporate countermeasures against demining. Some, employing an accordion-like trigger design, can withstand the sudden shock of a nearby explosion, detonating only when more slowly depressed, as by the pressure of a foot; others employ anti-disturbance devices that detonate the mine whenever it is handled, injuring or killing would-be deminers. Bounding mines spring up three feet above the ground to shatter into fragments with a lethal radius of 90 feet. And some larger mines may even emit directed fragments: the large U.S. Claymore mine used in Vietnam, for instance, has a 150-foot lethal range for persons walking into its line of fire.

Because the larger-size anti-tank mines cost more to produce and lay, they are much less numerous, increasingly more sophisticated, and generally found on roads or around military installations and other centers of travel and communication. By contrast, anti-personnel mines are cheap, numerous, and prevalent in many diverse locales. The damage anti-personnel mines inflict-disabling victims for months or for life-is economically worth orders of magnitude more than their cost of a few dollars apiece. By that cruel calculus, they are cost-effective even against irregular infantry or the poorest of unarmed villagers. Because of their prevalence and availability, because they tend to be placed more randomly, and because they make up the bulk of the lingering scourge, these anti-personnel mines are our quarry, the particular focus of humanitarian demining efforts.

To be sure, mines are not new weapons and armies have long developed methods and organizations for demining. But the fact is, today’s task of large-scale humanitarian demining is new, and not really open to swift solution by deploying military-trained combat engineers. Humanitarian demining entails peacetime detection and deactivation, over an indefinite period of time, of virtually every mine emplaced in a wide area-a place of home and work to many people whose resources are often scarce and life arduous. Humanitarian demining demands nearly 100 percent detection. The search can be very slow, large numbers of false alarms are acceptable even though costly, and all operations can be confined to good weather and daytime conditions. With these dramatically differing requirements, it is not surprising that demining methods and equipment vary widely.

By contrast, most military demining efforts have favored a capital-costly “brute force” approach that uses motorized vehicles equipped with steel rollers or treads able to detonate anti-personnel mines by riding over them, with damage to the vehicles minimized through clever design and heavy shielding. Some are heavily armored trucks that ride roughshod over mines withstanding most of the anti-personnel detonations with only minor and largely reparable damage. Others, like big bulldozers, attempt to pick up and remove mines, clearing a path as they go.

Such vehicles are particularly suited to so-called military tactical demining which aims to “breach” minefields, rapidly clearing corridors, paths, and roads for combat use even during battle, often within hours. But the brute force approach is largely inappropriate for the highly exacting task of humanitarian demining: when it is applied to uneven ground, it may not detonate every explosive device. Yet such an assurance is precisely what local inhabitants need. The customary test of demining success is direct and public: as the neighborhood watches, the deminers join hands to form a line and walk across the entire plot. Would you yourself settle for less?

Unfortunately, the great variety of fusing mechanisms, of emplacement methods, and of terrain makes the thorough neutralization of anti-personnel mines decidedly difficult. While unquestionably heroic and well suited to the world of low technology, the present creep-and-probe method of humanitarian demining is plainly unaffordably slow, expensive, and dangerous. Because of these drawbacks, creep and probe demining as it is currently practiced can have only marginal impact on the global landmine problem. A true solution mandates developing and quickly deploying new methods and equipment that can speed up humanitarian demining by up to a hundred-fold at affordable cost.

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