JMU Research Sharpens Global Landmine Removal Practices


By Eric Gorton, JMU Public Affairs

As landmines age, they become more fragile, more unpredictable, more likely to go off with the slightest disturbance—or at least that has been the prevailing theory among ordnance disposal experts for decades.

But a two-year study of aging landmines conducted by the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery at James Madison University is turning that theory on its head and has the potential to revolutionize the fiscal and strategic approaches used to dispose of the devices around the world.

Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the study examined mines in Cambodia, Jordan and the Falkland Islands from 2008-2010. The analysis involved the recovery, disassembly and analysis of mines in the field, but it went further by involving JMU researchers. Dr. Tony Hartshorn and Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, both assistant professors of geology and environmental science, and Dr. Kevin Davies, a former faculty member in the JMU Chemistry Department—studied parts of aging mines as well as the soils they were found in using JMU's electron microscope as well as sophisticated chemical analyses, providing new insight into what happens to mines as they age.

"One of the questions is, if you have a landmine that is dependent on a metal pin, what's happening to the metal inside?" said Daniele Ressler, a program manager at the CISR.

Colin King, a British ordnance disposal consultant who teamed up with the CISR for the study, said, "In Cambodia and Jordan we were able to take things apart, look at them in detail, take good pictures. A lot of it was obvious visually. You could see rust, or a spring collapsed completely or the casing was breached or the explosive was in reasonable condition. All of these things you could see, but the material science needed more analysis, what type of plastic was it? What type of rubber was it?"

What the study revealed was that many of the beliefs about the dangers of aging landmines, formed more by speculation than by scientific analysis, were not quite accurate.

"There's all sorts of folklore and anecdotal evidence about things that had or hadn't happened and there was a gradual realization that the whole picture was changing and that we understood very little about what was going on," said King, who also is an editor for mine clearance and ordnance disposal reference books published by Jane's Information Group.

King said two incidents in particular led him to question just how much he and other experts really knew about what they were dealing with. The first involved a type of anti-tank mine used during the first Gulf War that apparently went off with far less pressure than it should have.

"Because it was an anti-tank mine, there were no survivors to tell the tale of what happened," King said. "But it looked like this was attributed to degradation of a particular component making it much more sensitive. And that reinforced the general opinion that everybody in EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) had—this feeling that anything that is getting older becomes more unstable, more unpredictable and that translates to more dangerous."

But during a tour of a minefield in Jordan, a senior officer carelessly stepped directly on an anti-tank mine, and nothing happened.

"It was designed to need around 200-300 kg for initiation, but I thought being in such a very bright light, hot condition, being there for 30 years, if the casing is deteriorated, become more brittle, then it could easily have gone off under the weight of a person" King said. "It was one of the biggest mines in the world, so I wouldn't be here if it had."

With the study results, mine action leaders will be able to make more informed decisions about prioritizing locations for clearing mines in addition to improving best practices for doing the work. In parts of Cambodia, for example, there are lethal anti-personnel mines that are triggered by trip wires. However, based on initial study results, decision makers can begin to say with increased confidence that these mines may have degraded to a point that they don't work and thus mines in other areas should be cleared first.

"Slowly the funding is decreasing and so there is pressure on resources and there's now, more than ever, a need to not only understand what is happening in the field but also to know which areas might be the most high priority," Ressler said. "This is one way for us to try and explore a new way of looking at prioritization."

Added King: "It has real implications, in some cases life and death implications and in other cases, serious funding implications. You know, you could spend a million dollars on an area that really didn't need clearing at the expense of an area where you did. So we feel that we've achieved quite a lot."

While the study has broken new ground, Ressler and King say much more research is needed.

"We are absolutely hoping for more funding," Ressler said. "If anything has been made clear from this phase of the research, it is that there are some extremely important, exciting and interesting aspects to this kind of research that are still untapped. The ability to do the research is there. It just hasn't been done yet."

King said there are about 150 types of mines in the world and the study has looked at about 20 types. And while they are the 20 most common types, others still should be studied. King also said the study could be applicable to other types of unexploded ordnance scattered around the world from past wars.

"Landmines are a very small component of a very large spectrum of weapons. And you could apply this same principal of trying to understand the aging process to a lot of other things. There are literally tens of thousands of unexploded bombs underneath London that have been there for 60 or 70 years. And there are millions and millions of tons of Soviet legacy cold war weapons in eastern European states and African states. All is well past its intended service date and all requires safe disposal."

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Published: Thursday, February 24, 2011

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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