Myths, Mines, and Ground ClearanceAndy Smith
Issue 2.3 | October 1998 |
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The following article deals with some common misconceptions about deminers, demining, and demining equipment. It is not an academic paper, but it is rather a discussion prompt. Some of the points are old enough to appear bearded to the field men--sorry about that--but newcomers still need to hear them. A few are contentious. To some extent, I am playing devil's advocate although all of the points raised in this article have arisen during my field work. I believe that they deserve an airing, and I would be interested to hear any well-reasoned, contrary opinions, or any words of support. Please send such comments to me at email@example.com.
Throughout this article, I quote common misconceptions and important
factors in bold italics. In some cases, I might not have used quite
the right wording, but I think I have caught the intent. Those who know
me might recognize some arguments, but their presence here does not
have validity, but I would be the first to admit that no single correct
Least Helpful Misconceptions
Several myths about demining exist, and these myths tend to irritate me much more than they should. My least favorite is the line favored by politicians:
"If we can send men to the moon, we must be able to do better than a man with a prod!"
Of course, it looks as though it would be easy to improve on the prod, but how do you improve on the person? Anyone who has been engaged in manual demining knows that the deminer gathers data constantly from eyes, hands, and even through the soles of his boots. That information is processed almost instantly, and balanced judgments result. The human eye is actually the most effective detector. It recognizes subtle clues faster than any machine, and the eye is responsible for locating more devices than any other tool.
Critics often present the "man with a prod" as an unsophisticated
cave-man technology. In fact, it is more sophisticated than any artificial
device yet available. No matter how many millions of dollars are thrown
at robotics, it will be a very long time before machines equal the sophisticated
array of data gathering and processing equipment that is a human being--never
mind transforming technology into a small, intelligent, and autonomous
robot. And as far as prods are concerned, I discuss "improvements" later
in this article.
"More mines are being laid than cleared today."
Most of the mines currently in the ground were more-or-less "donated" to support surrogates in Cold War conflicts that were played out on foreign soil. Millions of mines were effectively dumped in ideological conflict regions. Their local use was often profligate and their utility assumed to be proven (partly because of the examples of indiscriminate use set by the US and the Soviets in South East Asia and Afghanistan).
The truth is that since the end of the Cold War, the extensive use
of anti-personnel mines appears to have declined rapidly. Meanwhile,
the International Committee for the Red Cross, the ICRC, (who propagated
the "more mines" myth) has failed to answer the thousands who have asked
the crucial question, "Where are the two million new mines being laid
"Mines have no place in modern warfare."
This statement is true to a point--from a western point of view. If you fight your wars on foreign soil and have every kind of expensive technology at your disposal so that you can anticipate a rapid victory, the prospect of having to clean up your mines later can make them more trouble than they are worth. If, however, you are fighting a protracted civil war, mines are useful--as any foot soldier knows. This utility in drawn-out conflicts is why the Vietcong made mines out of wood and bamboo in their underground workshops and why Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are common in Bosnia and Afghanistan. You cannot ban IEDs, which are usually simple mines. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has shown that you can make commercially-produced mines more difficult to come by, which I think is good, but they do not have to pretend that this effort will solve the landmine problem. As a military friend recently pointed out, any country with the capacity to put beans in a can or make plastic toys can produce landmines in quantity when it wants to do so.
The truth is that as long as conflicts continue, victim-initiated
devices (mines) of one kind or another will be used.
"Mines are the greatest killers in post-conflict regions."
This statement is a gross oversimplification. In some areas, it is true. In many areas, it is the other detritus of war that claims the most lives. And these incidents are not always "accidents." In countries with a ruined economy and huge number of displaced people trying to grub some kind of a living, a few pennies for scrap metal can seem very attractive. The greatest risk depends upon where you happen to be. For example, some people say that booby traps are the greatest killers in Bosnia, and while the distinction is pretty academic to the victim, it is critical to the men cleaning the ground.
The truth is that, while it lacks the sound-bite ring, the armaments
left over after a conflict has ended are the greatest killers in post-conflict
Know Your Deminer
"You can meet deminers and find out about demining at conferences."
Briefly, a deminer is not someone you will meet at a conference or someone who is paid a UN salary. Those people might be Demining Supervisors, but they do not actually clear mines themselves. I can think of only three ex-pats who regularly demine among the many hundreds I have met in my travels, and these ex-pats do so out of an obsessive personal commitment, not because they are paid to do so. The ex-pat is far more economically occupied in training and management tasks (often, 20 local deminers can be employed for the same daily salary of one ex-pat, not to mention other costs).
This fact is not to say that ex-pats do not take risks--they often
do when unusual circumstances occur, and they occasionally do just by
being in the unstable countries where they are working. These experts
frequently have to put up with a level of management frustration that
would drive lesser men to murder, while they must also juggle more balls
than any circus act and do so while in conditions of considerable physical
hardship. But, on the whole, these individuals do not demine.
The truth is that, in most cases, ex-pats are contractually prohibited
from actual demining, and some of these individuals have never looked
for and found a mine in a real situation. Also, many of the speakers
at conferences are self-professed "experts." With notable exceptions,
very few of these persons have much experience at demining on the ground
with a prod.
Ex-pat Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) men usually do get their
hands-on experience, but they are specialist EOD people rather than
deminers, and when EOD is taken seriously its equipment needs can be
much more sophisticated. Of course (apologies to Andy MacAndrew), there
is a sense in which all demining is EOD, but for the time being it is
simplest to continue to recognize a difference between the two.
I define a "humanitarian deminer" as someone whose principal day-to-day
activity involves using their eyes, dogs, detectors, prodders, or other
means to physically clear areas believed to be mined. The man who makes
sure that person is trained, equipped, and works according to the rules
is not a "deminer." By my definition, he is a "demining supervisor."
"Demining is a specialist activity that takes a long time to learn."
In many developing countries, most field deminers are local men. They might have a military background, but this background is rarely one that involved much in-depth training in mine detection and removal. Some organizations have new deminers working in a live area within ten days of starting their training. These deminers will then work alongside a more experience person for up to six months of further "on-the-job" training (often done at reduced pay).
Around the world, most demining organizations give no more than six
weeks of training before putting local deminers in a live situation.
These organizations argue that it is not economical to spend large sums
of money on training when deminers might leave to work with another
organization at any time (the "poaching" of experienced people is a
problem wherever commercial demining is established). The fact that
a trained deminer is usually only paid around US$5 a day is also relevant.
At first glance, this level of training seems inadequate: certainly,
it is very different from what would be considered essential in Europe
and in the USA. But in this case, the training is not for a career in
sophisticated EOD work. It is for a deminer to be able to reliably (and
safely) find devices (not just mines).. Often, these deminers do not
even have to set an explosive charge--the team leader will perform that
activity. How long does it take to learn how to use a particular detector,
carefully clear undergrowth, and prod the ground at the correct angle?
Five days? Ten days? Even then, most of the time is spent on repetition
so that what is deemed "good practice" becomes a habit--a habit that
is then reinforced by supervision in a live area.
This system works, and from the incomplete information I have gathered
about accidents, it looks as if the highest risk time among deminers
is not their first weeks or even their first year of work. While many
details in accident reports are "suspect," I cannot think of any reason
why "length of service" should be one of them.
Before criticizing the length and the scope of training, remember
to place it in the context where it is applied. In some countries, there
are more deminers injured in road accidents than while working; in many
cases, the risk of an early death from violence and sickness is very
high. There is often no realistic health care, no effective police force,
and an openly corrupt administration (no water supply, no telephone
system, and a currency so worthless that Mercedes-owning government
ministers keep their savings in $US while rural children die of common
intestinal parasites). Is it then appropriate to apply western standards
to deminer training when these standards are absent from any other aspect
of local life?
The truth is that while demining is a specialist activity, it does
not take long to learn.
(That said, I still want to see standards rise, and I have been involved
in the local production of protective gear and hand tools for that purpose.
After all, the situation in the post-conflict country is supposed to
be improving, and standards across the board should be rising.)
West is Best
"The rules of humanitarian demining must be set by western specialists."
The observant witness in the field will find that published rules are widely ignored, and the command structure is often evaded. The working position, use of tools, and even the thoroughness of searching the ground will vary from site to site. Very little of it will map directly onto the published operating procedures and the glossy brochures that are available at home. In the field, the rules are seen as guidelines, and pragmatism takes over. No one should be surprised by this situation; it happens in many professions -- including the serving military.
In many places around the world, ex-pat staff have told me that the
organizations they have established will collapse as soon as foreign
expertise is withdrawn. I believe they are often right. Some of them
think this collapse is because of a local lack of sophistication or
endemic corruption. Both problems are common, but the reason for unsustainability
might well be that the Western command structure is simply inappropriate
for the local culture. Do not assume that a command structure suited
to local circumstances will be less strict or efficient. Some locally-managed
commercial companies involved in demining in Africa are very strict
and very cost effective. MineTech and Mechem are obvious examples. And
while commercial companies might need to be watched closely to ensure
that corners are not cut, we might still be able to learn something
about appropriate command structures from them. I do not mean to suggest
the widespread adoption of their methods--where discipline and punishment
regimes might be brutal--merely their study to see what parts can be
The truth is that western specialists can usefully provide a starting
point, but the actual rules applied will always vary.
Soldiers might argue about which country's training is the best, but
they tend to accept the above statement as a fact. Many accept that
what they see in the field is not ideal, but it tends to be assumed
that a western-style military regime will be the safest and the most
efficient way of organizing humanitarian demining in the field, and
it is often seen as the only option available anyway.
Humanitarian demining is not just about clearing areas of ground.
The management and maintenance of a large ground-clearance program requires
very different skills from those of the deminer, and the skills of the
ex-pat staff involved reflect these needs.
At this point, it can be useful to separate demining supervisors from
demining managers. In general, the supervisor regularly spends time
in the field. While the manager might visit the field, he spends the
majority of his working life in an office. In general, the higher the
military rank, the more likely the ex-soldier is to be a manager, and
the more experience he will have in the management role.
Demining supervisors usually have a lower military rank and more hands-on
experience. Most of those supervisors that I have met have a maximum
of eight weeks of military mine-clearance training somewhere in their
past, and many of these individuals recognize that this training is
no preparation for the needs of humanitarian demining. To their credit,
most of these persons learn as they go, and some individuals have become
very good at recognizing the needs of their men and at making incremental
improvements to working practice and equipment.
In very few cases does the demining supervisor's background include
training in how to train, never mind how to train an unsophisticated
technician in a developing country. Yet that factor is usually the most
important part of their job. In no case that I know of has the supervisor's
background included an in-depth analysis of development issues in the
country and the culture in which they are operating (although a few
have acquired it).
Given the lack of preparation, it is quite astounding how much Demining
Supervisors often achieve, and that is the main argument I can find
in favor of using people with a military background: they might not
have the appropriate skills when they arrive, but they tend not to accept
failure as an option. Whether they are working against or with the management
system, when they achieve things is a moot point in some areas.
One of the most efficient demining Non-Government Organizations (NGOs)
I have met is not run by people with military training at all, and it
is one of the few run by people who also work as deminers as well as
supervisors. As their profile has grown, they have been obliged to get
some formal explosives training, and they have taken on ex-pats with
military training to meet funder requirements. But their training and
staff extension was after the event rather than in preparation for it.
While using ex-soldiers makes sense when emergency rapid action is
required, it is not so obviously desirable when the problem is not one
that can be solved with a single concerted intervention. To devise and
implement a sustainable solution that will continue without foreign
intervention requires skills that are not necessarily part of military
training. In Cambodia and Afghanistan, the UN has recognized this factor
and has appointed people who can see the broader picture to head the
Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) and the Mine Action Center Afghanistan
(MACA). These individuals are men with a military background, and they
are men who have put aside the blinders of their training and accepted
the necessary learning curve in the job. More power to them. Give them
the power to appoint a support staff with a development background (rather
than a fancy degree), and their jobs might become much easier.
The truth is that it is by no means obvious that western military
training is an adequate, appropriate, or sufficient preparation for
organizing humanitarian demining. Neither is it obvious that an MBA \
or a Doctorate (increasingly UN requirements) from a western university
would help in any way at all.
"The equipment issued to our military guys is the best in the world."
From this statement it is sometimes argued that the same equipment should be used in demining. It rarely is. There are three main reasons why it is not:
- high cost of military equipment,
- it is not designed for use in humanitarian demining, and
- western world's fascination with technology for its own sake.
Equipment designed for a military purpose is made by an industry that
often thinks cost is not a major issue, and the final value of a piece
of equipment always includes the cost of aggressive marketing. The end
product can include features designed for covert combat situations,
such as camouflage, infrared invisibility, ultra-light and ultra-small
components, multi-function compatibility with other combat equipment,
etc. Often designed for occasional use, it frequently cannot withstand
the "normal" treatment sustained during humanitarian demining in the
field. The Schiebel AN-19/2 mine detector is a fine example of this
situation, for defunct units of this model, which is uneconomic to repair,
litter the African countryside.
An ideal design specification for humanitarian demining would not include the above features and would stress features that do not rank highly among military needs. The most important are:
- low cost,
- robust in extended use,
- simple operation, and
- easy service or repair in the field.
As far as metal detectors are concerned, the Ebinger 420 series
comes closest to these requirements (without meeting them), and so is
popular with "deminers" despite lacking the sensitivity of some competitors.
Detectors are an example of the high-tech end of demining equipment.
Probes (prodders) are probably the lowest-tech item. The simplest probes
I have seen in use have been lengths of reinforcing bar that cost a
dollar. The most expensive military probe I have encountered is offered
at CAN$700, but the average probe seems to cost around US$100. To justify
the cost, most of these detectors have added value designed in to their
cost. The producers of the fanciest probe claim that their product can
identify the material obstructing their progress through the ground
while other fancy probes contract into short handles or extend into
two-meter-long sticks. In some cases, these probes are designed with
humanitarian demining in mind, but they are not designed with low cost,
robustness in extended use, simplicity of operation, and easy service
or repair in the field in mind.
Frequently, the designers have also forgotten to carry out an analysis
of what is wanted. They appear to move directly from a new high-tech
idea to a marketing strategy and rely on modern man's fascination with
technology to supply the "need."
The DEW Smart-probe is an example (cost of this fascination with technology:
roughly CAN$700). According to the salesman I spoke with, this battery-powered
probe can discriminate between stone, wood, and plastic--so you probe
the ground until you hit something, then read off what you have hit.
Assuming that the probe can cope with paint, bakelite, or sticky soils,
it sounds neat until you think about why anyone would want a smart probe.
The only economical or sensible reasons seem to be either to accelerate
the mine-detection process or to make the process safer.
In most cases, the Smart-probe would be used to investigate a detector
signal. Imagine this scenario: The detector signals, and the deminer
narrows the signal down as best he can; then, he lays aside the detector
and picks up his DEW Smart-probe. On the first insertion, the probe
hits something and the reading says "stone." There could be a pebble
in front of the mine, so the user must again insert the probe into the
ground. Again, the reading is "stone," but that does not prove that
there is not a mine just behind a second stone, so the deminer again
inserts the probe into the ground, and again, and again, and again.
To be sure that he is not dealing with a mine, the user would still
have to probe all around the signal and break up the ground as he went.
To meet most clearance requirements in humanitarian demining, the user
would then have to remove the soil and find the metal that made the
detector signal. I cannot see how it would make that investigation safer,
either, but I can see how it might give false confidence if it was misused.
(Thanks to Bob Keeley.)
Quite apart from its initial high cost, the DEW Smart-probe's reliance
on batteries (expensive and hard to get in remote areas), and its apparently
short design life (How many insertions do they think it will make in
a year?), the people behind the DEW Smart-probe do not appear to have
considered the needs of the market before developing this expensive
The truth is that equipment designed for a military purpose is rarely
ideal for use in humanitarian demining.
"Locally made demining equipment is always of a low quality."
This opinion is rarely stated as bluntly, but it is often a clear assumption behind the attitude of equipment purchasers. It is an attitude that is fostered by suppliers of equipment in the west--suppliers who prefer everyone to source through them. The demining supply industry is a sophisticated, hard-sell extension of the arms supply business, so no one should expect it to have honesty as one of its major aims.
The main advantages of demining groups having their equipment supplied
from local sources are
- low cost (reflecting local employment rates and no sales hype or
- continued availability (promoting sustainability in demining),
- easy maintenance or repair, and
- easy inclusion of area-specific design features.
The main disadvantages are
- belief that the equipment is of low quality,
- lack of available designs,
- initial hassle in establishing quality manufacture, and
- problem of guaranteeing availability of raw materials.
With simple manufacturing regimes that include quality assurance checks
at all levels, all four of these disadvantages can be overcome by manufacturing
in a stable neighboring country--as long as the product is simple or
is an incremental improvement on what is already used. No design awards
here, just common sense. Most field men can readily suggest improvements
to existing tools, and many of them can explain what they want an new
piece of equipment to do even if they do not have the familiarity with
a sketchpad to draw it.
The truth is that perfectly adequate, locally-made simple tools exist
(Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) Mozambique, HALO Cambodia, CMAC Cambodia,
etc.). More sophisticated items such as blast visors and body armor
can also be made regionally, as has been proven in my own work.
"We need to spend millions of dollars and use our best brains and facilities to develop new equipment for demining."
This assumption seems to rest on the belief that "Incremental changes are too small to count--we need a paradigm leap forward to solve this problem now." This assumption also contains the presupposition that the need could only be met by the "best" brains in western R&D.
Since 1994, I have seen considerable changes to the equipment used
on the ground. The changes are largely in two areas:
- deminer tooling and protection, and
- mechanical assistance.
These areas serve the two purposes of enhancing safety and enhancing
speed, and the division between purposes maps well onto the division
between equipment areas.
None of the recent changes are the direct result of any new expenditure
on western research and development. Reasons for this failure of R&D
effort range from confused design criteria (mixing military needs with
those of humanitarian demining) to plain ignorance of the problems in
the field. In many cases, the inappropriateness of the design has been
made obvious early in its development, but once the funds have been
granted and the developers appointed it seems that the work must go
on regardless of the situation.
Commercial developers suffer the same confused design aims. To return
to the example of detectors, a Schiebel salesman told me that there
are not enough sales in humanitarian demining to warrant the development
of a detector for that market, so his company's detectors continue to
be designed primarily for the military. These companies, however, know
what is wanted (I, among others, have told them), but profit must come
Leaving aside the incremental improvement of demining tooling and
protection (an area where my interest might make me less than objective),
the development of mechanically assisted demining provides an object
lesson for those who believe that western-based R&D is essential. While
huge sums are being spent on monstrously heavy and strong machines that
many believe will never work adequately, some demining groups, such
as the NPA in Angola, have taken existing "mine-clearance" vehicles
(the Aardvark) and used them in a more realistic role as an area-reduction
and vegetation-clearance tool, and these applications have not involved
any significant revision of the original machine. While this process
is quick, it is also too expensive for most groups to consider. The
HALO Trust, Mine Tech, and MACA (amongst others) have all taken existing
plant equipment (much cheaper than military equipment) and adapted it
for use in the field. Their converted back-hoes, tractors, and road-graders
dramatically speed up the process of clearance. These groups have made
minimal adjustments (usually armoring) to existing equipment and got
on with the job without applying much thought to further developments.
MgM, who pioneered the use of mulchers and road-graders in Angola, have
gone one stage further. With a pool of scrap mine-resistant vehicles
to draw on (in Namibia) and obsessive personal commitment, they have
made fundamental refinements and developed dedicated Mechanically Assisted
Mine clearance (MAM) systems at a remarkably low cost (mostly from their
The success of all the existing MAM systems relies on them being developed
in the field, where very expensive or impractical ideas are quickly
dropped. Making incremental improvements to what they can get and with
an everyday pressure for speed and effectiveness, these groups have
already made a real difference to demining speed (in most cases, without
The truth is that MAM systems have been developed in the field at
a fraction of the costs being spent on developing unsuitable equipment
in safe countries overseas. If some of that cost were dedicated to field
refinement, it could be far more effective in terms of speeding up the