The Performance of Militaries in Humanitarian Demining

by Ted Paterson [ Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining ]

Studies indicate that humanitarian demining under civilian oversight is safer and more cost-efficient than humanitarian demining under military oversight. This article provides examples supporting such evidence, cites possible exceptions, and explores reasons for performance inadequacies in military demining units.

Table 1: Cost comparisons for humanitarian demining from Ethiopia and Eritrea.
(Click image to enlarge)
Table 1: Cost comparisons for humanitarian demining from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There are few documented examples of militaries performing efficient and effective humanitarian demining1 when working under a military chain of command. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining found only a handful of studies in which a direct comparison could be made between HD by militaries versus nongovernmental organizations or commercial firms.2 The studies surveyed concluded that military units performing HD were less productive, far more expensive and worked to lower The studies surveyed concluded that military units performing HD were less productive, far more expensive and worked to lower safety standards.

The clearest comparison derives from an evaluation of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea3 where similar tasks were conducted by demining units serving within the peacekeeping force and by civilian organizations working under commercial contracts. Cost-effectiveness comparisons were calculated for both area demining and road demining tasks, and are summarized in Table 1.

Deminers training for peacekeeping duties.
Deminers training for peacekeeping duties.
Photo courtesy of Doug Ware

In brief, demining by military units was between 25 and 60 times more expensive than demining by civilian contractors working in the same country at the same time, and on similar tasks. In addition, U.N. peacekeeping forces did not demine to International Mine Action Standards in 2004,4 and as areas not demined to IMAS are not considered safe for civilian use by organizations that adhere to IMAS, the demined areas may have needed re-clearance before release.

Evidence also shows that military units were less effective than civilian operators in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From March–June 1997, U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted training for 450 members of the Entity Armed Forces.5 The training was based on military procedures, and the United Nations Mine Action Centre did not accredit the EAF for humanitarian demining. Approximately six months later, Special Operations Forces returned to deliver another series of training courses to new EAF recruits, this time working closely with UNMAC and using its humanitarian-demining training guidelines. Following this training, the EAF reached HD accreditation in June 1998.

The graph above summarizes the EAF demining casualties in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From 1997 to early 1998, the personnel trained in military-demining procedures sustained 29 casualties, 19 of which resulted in death or serious injury. After 1998, the EAF personnel trained under UNMAC training guidelines for humanitarian demining and suffered no de-mining casualties from 1998–2001.6

Demining casualties of the Entity Armed Forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
(Click image to enlarge)
Demining casualties of the Entity Armed Forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Graphic courtesy of the author/CISR

Exceptions may be found in the future wherein military deminers, working under a military chain of command, will perform as well as or better than civilian operators. In Vietnam, for example, army demining units and military-owned firms conducted extensive unexploded-ordnance survey and clearance operations in support of infrastructure and other investment projects.7 However, GICHD is unaware of any thorough comparison of costs or of Vietnamese demining standards relative to IMAS.

Performance differentials documented by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea and in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not stem from a lack of skill on the part of military demining personnel, many of whom have gone on to successful careers with NGOs and commercial operators. In addition, military demining units working under civilian authorities have proven to be an effective solution in a number of countries, including Azerbaijan,8 Chile,9 Ethiopia10 and Yemen.11 The key in such cases appears to be the existence of a board of civilian officials (such as a National Mine Action Authority) which sees demining as essential for the country. It ensures that capable mine-action managers are in place, along with incentives for these managers to deliver safe, efficient and effective demining services.

The finding that humanitarian demining is generally less productive and more costly when conducted by military units than by civilian operators is mirrored in the humanitarian-assistance field. For example, the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda concluded that “… military air transport is four to eight times more expensive than commercial air transport. Thus in those instances where military aircraft operated over the same routes as functioning road transport routes … the use of military aircraft to carry cargos that could have travelled by road was between 20 and 40 times more expensive.”12,13

Stockpile destruction in Sudan.
Stockpile destruction in Sudan.
Photo courtesy of Doug Ware

Such findings should not be a surprise. Militaries have a different mandate from civilian organizations. In military operations, failure to achieve the principal objective can spell disaster for the unit, the entire military force and the nation as a whole. Accordingly, militaries spare no costs to achieve their strategic objectives, even if it means that performance on other measures—such as efficiency or cost per unit—is sacrificed. Military demining operations are not designed to be judged against the performance rules of the humanitarian-demining industry.

Increasingly, Western militaries have recognized that significant savings can be made by contracting civilian organizations to work under commercial incentives. They now make far greater use of civilian contractors for such tasks as transportation, facilities management and administration. Recent years have also seen a number of initiatives to enhance the contribution that military units make to humanitarian-demining operations. In November 2003, for example, the U.N. Security Council issued an important statement on mine action, including: “The Security Council recognizes the contribution that peacekeeping personnel can make in the areas of mine risk education and demining and calls upon troop-contributing countries, where appropriate, to train selected personnel to demine in accordance with the International Mine Action Standards.”14 Since the evaluation of the UNMEE Mine Action Coordination Centre, military demining units serving in U.N. peacekeeping missions have required accreditation from UNMAS and must conduct their operations in compliance with IMAS. Improvements have also been made in coordination and information exchange between military and civilian operators within peacekeeping missions. Efforts are also underway in a number of NATO member states toward the harmonization of mine-action doctrine and standards, at least within peacekeeping and stabilization operations, and within the context of humanitarian emergencies.

Situations remain in which military demining units working under a military chain of command should or must be used, even though they would not be the cheapest or most productive solution. Such scenarios include operations in highly insecure environments and when very rapid emergency response is required, in which case militaries generally have far greater capacities than any civilian organization can muster. In other cases, fostering military-to-military contacts is the primary objective, and humanitarian-demining activities are simply a means to this end. Studies show that demining conducted under civilian oversight provides the safest, most effective and cost-efficient option. Thus, militaries should be trained to humanitarian standards and operate under civilian oversight when engaged in humanitarian-demining operations.


Paterson headshotTed Paterson has a background in international development, working with NGOs, research and education institutes, and consulting firms, as well as in an independent consultant capacity. He has been active in mine action since 1999, working mainly on socioeconomic and performance- management issues. Paterson joined the GICHD in 2004 and is Head of Evaluation and Policy Research. He has degrees in business, economics and development economics.


  1. Mine action often uses the term humanitarian to imply “not for military or purely commercial purposes.” Humanitarian demining is undertaken in support of reconstruction and development efforts, and to meet Ottawa Convention obligations, as well as for purely humanitarian reasons (i.e., to save lives and limbs, usually in an emergency situation).
  2. The main reasons for the dearth of such studies appear to be the reluctance of militaries to share data and the fact that there are few situations in which military and civilian humanitarian- demining operations are underway in the same country and at the same time (e.g., either the military has a monopoly on demining in the country, or they are not involved in humanitarian-demining tasks).
  3. GICHD. Evaluation of the UNMEE Mine Action Coordination Centre. August 2005. See Chapter 9 for details on the cost-effectiveness comparisons. Accessed 16 December 2009.
  4. The United Nations has since adopted a policy that military demining units serving in peacekeeping forces must work in compliance with IMAS.
  5. At that time, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Bosniaks each maintained separate armed forces, which collectively were termed the EAF.
  6. GICHD. The Role of the Military in Mine Action. June 2003. See Chapter 3 (37–41). Accessed 16 December 2009.
  7. Legislation in Vietnam specifies that unexploded ordnance survey/clearance is required for all significant investment projects. The Department of Defence is responsible for the delivery of such services, but the cost must be covered in the financing plan for each investment project.
  8. GICHD. EC-Funded Mine Actions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. July 2009. Accessed 17 March 2010.
  9. GICHD. Desminado Humanitario En Chile. November 2008.
    Accessed 17 March 2010.
  10. GICHD. Evaluation of NPA’s Humanitarian Mine Action Project and Review of Ethiopia’s Mine Action Programme. February 2007. Accessed 17 March 2010.
  11. GICHD. Mid-Term Outcome Evaluation for Strengthening National Capacity for Mine Action in Yemen – Phase II. June 2005. Accessed 17 March 2010.
  12. Borton, John, Emery Brusset and Alistair Hallam. (1997) Humanitarian Aid and Effects, Chapter 5, Part II, section 8.1. “Udenrigsministeriet. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, Study 3.” Accessed 16 December 2009.
  13. GICHD is unaware of other independent studies on the cost-effectiveness of military delivery of humanitarian assistance. On the use of military assets in humanitarian emergencies more generally, refer to: United Nations, Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Civil-Military Guidelines & Reference for Complex Emergencies. 2008. Accessed 16 December 2009. This document embraces the principle of “last resort” (only request foreign military assets when there is no comparable civilian alternative).
  14. Statement by the President of the Security Council, S/PRST/2003/22, No. 22. 19 November 2003.

Contact Information

Ted Paterson
Head of Evaluation and Policy Research
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining
Avenue de la Paix 7bis
P.O. Box 1300
CH-1211 Geneva / Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 906 1668
Fax: +41 22 906 1690
Web site: