Demining During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan
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The U.S. and
Coalition forces’ occupation of airfields at Bagram and Kandahar in
Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom was initially hampered
by the presence of a large number of mines and UXO in both the
immediate and surrounding areas of the airfields. U.S. and Coalition
forces quickly came to understand that traditional countermine
demining operations were insufficient to ensure troop habitability and
operational safety in the base area, a situation not foreseen or
provided for in current U.S. Army doctrine. This experience strongly
suggests that the U.S. Army should assess its current countermine
doctrine and introduce a doctrinal modification to take into account
the future need to deal with mines and UXO in and around base areas.
by John L.
Wilkinson, Vice President, Operations, RONCO Consulting Corporation
many ways, Operation Enduring Freedom has diverged from the usual
pattern of U.S. and Coalition military operations that developed since
the Vietnam War. Whether small-scale operations such as Urgent Fury in
Grenada or Just Cause in Panama, or much larger-scale operations such
as Desert Shield/Desert Storm in the Gulf or
Allied Force in Serbia,
the usual pattern since the 1970s has been one of mounting operations
into enemy territory from friendly territory, and the usual pattern
has been not to occupy enemy territory for extended periods of time.
While Operation Enduring Freedom began as did the others mentioned
above, with the collapse of the Taliban government, Marine, U.S. Army
and Coalition forces occupied Bagram and Kandahar airfields inside
Afghanistan. Both have since been used as semi-permanent operational
bases from which to conduct further military operations against the
remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan and adjoining
border areas with Pakistan.
This change of pattern may well become more of the norm as the war
against terrorism progresses and U.S. and Coalition forces find
themselves operating with increasing frequency from bases that are not
necessarily in friendly or non-conflictive territory. As a result, and
based on the experience since February 2002 in Afghanistan, the U.S.
Army’s doctrine on dealing with mines is likely to require revision
or, at least, expansion to account for situations such as those
encountered in Afghanistan.
Mine Clearance vs. Demining
U.S. Army doctrine, there is a clear delineation of responsibility
between mine clearance operations, which are conducted by the Corps of
Engineers, and removal and disposal of UXO, which is the
responsibility of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams attached to
or integrated with combat units. Furthermore, there is a clear
distinction in doctrine between mine clearance and demining; the
latter, in fact, is not acknowledged as a military mission.
Army doctrine calls for breaching or clearing lines of communication
through minefields, clearly demarcating the cleared borders, and
moving through as quickly as operationally possible. A certain number
of casualties are recognized as inevitable in such operations.
Military minefields are usually laid to channel or delay movement, so
that direct or indirect fire, or both, can be brought to bear on an
opposing force that has slowed down or is concentrated at certain
pre-determined points as it attempts to traverse or avoid the
minefield. As a result, Army doctrine emphasizes speed in dealing with
such obstacles so as to engage and defeat the enemy directly, while
reducing the exposure of units to enemy fire.
this point, it is useful to note that Army doctrine on mine clearance
continues to reflect readiness for a war of rapid movement, such as
was expected in Europe and was carried out in the Gulf War. On the
other hand, demining or humanitarian demining, where the goal is to
render defined areas mine free or, more properly, mine safe, is not
recognized as a military mission in doctrine. While it is true that
U.S. Special Forces personnel receive training in humanitarian
demining at Fort Leonard Wood, they do so in order to teach it to
foreign military personnel. In combat, Special Forces do not have
demining or humanitarian demining as a mission and they do not,
indeed, have mine clearance as a mission either.
Operation Enduring Freedom
occupation of Bagram and Kandahar airfields in Afghanistan, and their
steady upgrade into semi-permanent operational bases for U.S. and
Coalition forces has highlighted this doctrinal issue. Sadly, it has
done so in the context of several casualties early in the occupation;
at the same time, it has also highlighted for the U.S. Army the need,
if not to rethink and redefine doctrine, then to account for
situations in which demining (as opposed to mine clearance) is
required to ensure operational safety and even troop habitability.
their initial occupation of these bases, the Marine Expeditionary
Force discovered wide areas that were infested with mines and UXO.
Addressing these threats was hampered by the limited availability of
mine detectors and other equipment. As a result, much of the early “demining” was accomplished by deploying troops in a line-abreast,
using their bayonets to prod the ground in search of mines and UXO.
Lamentably, this led to several casualties and fatalities, either as a
result of accidents while conducting such operations or by areas
mistakenly being declared as “cleared” following such operations.
early response to this situation was the introduction of Jordanian
Army Aardvark flails and, shortly thereafter, Norwegian-provided
Hydrema flails. Both have since been used extensively in processing
land within the perimeters of Bagram and Kandahar. The U.S. and
Coalition forces, however, were soon exposed to the reality of flail
operations: while they can “process” land (and are especially useful
in areas where vegetation must be removed or minimized) and detonate
mines, they are also prone to leaving significant numbers of UXO, and
some mines, in their wake.
Since the land processed by the flails was still dangerous and unfit
for habitation or other operations, ARCENT contracted with RONCO
Consulting Corporation to provide eight mine detection dog (MDD)
teams. Four were assigned to Bagram and four to Kandahar, for what was
planned to be an initial six-month period, beginning in early February
MDD teams deployed by RONCO consisted of highly experienced dogs and
their Bosnian handlers; most had been working together between four
and five years and had previously worked in widely varying areas,
including Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Kosovo, Namibia and Guantanamo Bay. The
experience and success of these teams is reflected in the fact that
one of them—Jaromir Josipovic and Brenda—was selected by the United
Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the
Marshall Legacy Institute to receive a “Champions of Children” award
in 2002, along with other luminaries such as Queen Noor of Jordan and
Senators Chuck Hagel and Patrick Leahy.
Although contracted to work a six-day work week, it soon became
evident that, in order to provide quality assurance at a pace
commensurate with that of the flails and of the expansion needs of the
military, a seven-day work week was necessary. As a result, after
almost six months of operation, the eight teams had provided quality
assurance to more than 1.1 million square meters of land and in the
process had discovered more than 6,000 mines and UXO, which were
either collected for demolition or blown in place, as circumstances
While most of these mines and UXO have been detected behind flail
operations, it is significant to note that a number of anti-tank mines
have been detected ahead of the flails. The reason for this is simple:
when flail operators suspected they would be processing land that
might contain anti-tank mines, they requested that the MDD teams
precede the flails in order to minimize or prevent the possibility of
a flail hitting such a mine and incurring major damage.
successful pairing of flails and MDDs is evident not only in the
amount of land that has been subject to quality assurance. It is also
evident in the fact that over the course of the handover of
responsibility from the Marine Expeditionary Force to the 10th
Mountain Division and now the 18th Airborne Corps, the incoming units
have requested that ARCENT retain the MDD teams and, in fact, that
RONCO manual deminers be added to the quality assurance process (a
task that had been carried out by the dog handlers, all of whom also
had demining experience). Furthermore, its success is reflected in the
fact that, not only have the original eight MDD teams been extended
for an additional six months, but RONCO has been contracted to provide
eight more MDD teams (four Bosnian and four Mozambican) in Afghanistan
as of September 2002.
alongside landing planes and helicopters waiting for takeoff.
The Lessons of Afghanistan
the first time in some 30 years, the U.S. military has been conducting
combat and related operations from operational bases located in
territory that is only recently “friendly” and that is still subject
to attacks. Furthermore, these operational bases are located in former
front line areas (Bagram) or areas that were fortified and defended by
one or more of the former warring parties (Kandahar). This environment
has introduced special conditions and problems that are not currently
addressed in U.S. Army doctrine.
Significantly, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army had an active
military patrol dog program, under which canines were trained to
detect booby traps and trip wires in support of combat operations.
With the end of that war, this capability soon ceased to exist in the
U.S. Army, although its basic characteristics lived on in Thailand’s
Military Dog Center at Pak Chong.
1989, when the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan and U.S. and
other Western foreign assistance was provided to the successive
Mujahedeen government, Thailand’s contribution was the introduction of
explosives and MDDs. While the MDD capability available worldwide has
significantly expanded in the years that followed, the U.S. Army—which
had innovated the use of canines in the detection of munitions—lacks
the doctrine to conduct other than countermine (rapid movement)
operations and the capability to undertake demining or humanitarian
principal lesson of Operation Enduring Freedom is that U.S. forces are
more likely than in the past to find themselves deployed and stationed
for relatively long periods of time in areas that are either
conflictive or that are being occupied immediately after a conflict.
By logical extension, the war on terrorism will see the deployment of
significant numbers of U.S. military personnel into areas where they
will be either participating in or directly supporting anti-terrorist
and related military operations. The Philippines is an early example
of such a deployment as is, to a lesser extent, the assistance being
provided to the nation of Georgia. Future such deployments might well
take place in countries as widely varying as Colombia, Indonesia,
Egypt and others in the Middle East.
common feature of these potential deployments is that, by definition,
the war on terrorism will feature operations against an armed enemy
operating from its own “safe” or “home” areas. As demonstrated in
previous guerrilla wars, to be effective such operations must displace
the terrorists from their “safe” areas and disrupt their own
operations by conducting anti-terrorist operations from within such
areas, not from the outside. Doing so will increasingly expose U.S.
and Coalition forces to the threat of emplaced mines, booby traps and
other UXO on a routine basis.
second lesson is that, at this point, the U.S. military is not
well-prepared to meet the habitability and secure operational base
requirements that arise from environments where mine and UXO
infestation is a problem. This was evident in the early days of the
Marine Expeditionary Force’s deployment into Afghanistan, and has been
addressed by the introduction of mechanical equipment operated by
Coalition forces and by contracted MDD and manual deminer teams to
provide quality assurance.
While the U.S. Central Command adapted to and found approaches to
address the situation in which its troops found themselves, they did
so despite doctrine. An early discussion between ARCENT and the U.S.
Department of State, through which the RONCO MDD and deminer teams
have been contracted using Department of Defense funds, was on the
issue of “countermine operations vs. demining.” The early insistence
by ARCENT that “we do not engage in demining” was overcome by their
realization that they, in fact, did not face a situation in which
countermine operations were feasible or acceptable as an approach to
Recently, in a possible precursor to a doctrinal modification, the
U.S. Army’s Humanitarian Demining Center at Fort Leonard Wood,
Missouri, has been exploring alternative approaches to the problem of
mines and UXO, especially those involving the use of MDDs. Since their
studies will most likely take into account their experience in
training Special Forces personnel in humanitarian demining, there is a
likelihood that any recommendations they might make will include the
development of a U.S. Army capability to conduct both countermine and
demining operations. Whether this latter capability is organic or
contracted (or some combination of the two) is an open question that
will, most likely, be influenced by budgetary and operational
considerations. In particular, the views of senior U.S. Army
leadership will affect whether a demining capability (if established
at all) is either created within a number of existing units or
established as a free-standing, deployable capability available either
serially or concurrently to a number of theaters of operation.
third lesson of Afghanistan is that the issue of countermine vs.
demining is, in fact, a non-issue and that it needs to be recognized
as such. Quite simply, the U.S. Army must be prepared to address both
missions. The use and threat of mines and UXO have proliferated to an
extent that they are likely to be encountered in almost any
conceivable anti-terrorist operation to which the U.S. Army will
deploy troops. Further, the U.S. Army may again find itself in a
situation such as the Gulf War, where minefield breaching and
countermine operations were an essential precursor to the rapid
movement and breakout into the rear of Iraqi forces.
U.S. Army cannot choose one mission over the other; it will be
presented with both threats and must be prepared to deal with them
*All photos courtesy of RONCO.
John L. Wilkinson
Vice President, Operations
RONCO Consulting Corporation
2301 M Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037