Below the Surface: The Technology of Landmine Removal

Article excerpt

THE LANDMINE IS ONE OF THE MOST insidious threats to civilians in former combat zones. Acting as cheap, disposable soldiers, landmines can defend a stronghold or a transit route by slowing the advance of an attacking force. Small, cheap landmines are easy to deploy in the thousands, but, unlike human soldiers, they cannot differentiate among their targets. So, long after the war is over, thousands of mines remain in the field, hidden and deadly. Landmines prevent civilians from returning battlefields to productive peacetime use as well as causing thousands of injuries and deaths.

The large number of civil and guerrilla conflicts since the end of the Cold War have only exacerbated the problem. As a cheap way to increase tactical strength, landmines are weapons of choice for guerrilla armies. These groups often disregard the international protocols governing the wartime deployment of landmines, protocols designed to reduce civilian casualties. For example, factions in the civil wars of Angola and Cambodia did not mark their minefields, so now civilians in those nations do not know which areas are dangerous and should be avoided. Some analysts claim that this sort of action is an intended part of rebel strategies. Insurgent armies may intentionally deploy landmines against civilian populations in an attempt to destabilize the society under attack. Whether or not this is true, estimates indicate that 100 million mines have been planted in over 60 nations, killing more than a thousand civilians per month and disrupting the lives of millions more.

Governments and organizations throughout the world have acknowledged the gravity of the global landmine problem and have launched a series of demining efforts in response. However, traditional methods of demining are unlikely to solve the problem. For example, if current means of demining were continued in Cambodia, it would take hundreds of years to clear the country of mines, assuming that no new explosives were planted. Although national and international demining programs have been well funded, their approach to new technology is too conservative. Research and development is almost exclusively directed toward military--as opposed to civilian or humanitarian--demining. This distinction between military and humanitarian demining is at the heart of the problem with the current search for technological solutions to the world's landmine problem. Armies create devices which can blast a path through a minefield during battle, allowing troops and equipment to pass through. Civilians, on the other hand, need to clear the entire field at a much lower cost, because land cannot be returned to productive use until every mine is removed. New humanitarian removal technology cannot promise an easy solution to this problem, but if demining programs are to succeed they must recognize the key role technological processes will have to play. Without faster means to clear minefields, civilians have no hope of keeping up with the armies planting landmines all over the world.

Organizations and Options

Both public and private organizations are currently involved in landmine removal, and this diversity has the advantage of allowing a variety of approaches to the problem. Governments and international bodies can have tremendous fiscal and human resources, while private companies may offer a more flexible approaches for small-scale demining. Although these private companies often cannot afford to be motivated by purely humanitarian concerns, many are drawn to lucrative sectors of global demining efforts. In some cases, contracts for demining can involve extraordinary sums of money. In March, 1995, for example, EOD Technology of Knoxville negotiated a US$9 billion deal with Kuwait for clearing landmines and other remaining ordinance. Defense companies often compete for such contracts, as was the case in early 1996 when Taiwan sought a contractor to removed mines from the island of Quemoy. …