Let Sleeping Mines Lie?
That's the title of a thought-provoking article in a recent issue of Jane's Defense Weekly, authored by Colin King, editor of companion journals on mines and explosive ordnance disposal. An excerpt from Mr. King's piece can be found here; the full article is available only through subscription.
In his op-ed, King blows a considerable hole in one of the pet causes of the Hollywood elite. Sometime between those AIDS fund-raisers and the celebrity sing-alongs for starving Africans, various members of the Hollywood set decided that leftover landmines represented a grave danger to humanity. There were more than a few photo ops involving various actors, many aping Princess Diana's famous poses with young victims of unmarked mine fields, and wearing an EOD technician's protective armor and visor. If it was a worthy cause for Princess Di, why it would certainly suffice for Hollywood's "royalty." Humanitarian demining became the cause of the moment. Democratic members of the U.S. Congress--always anxious to serve their film community constituency--even took up the banner, proposing that land mines be bannned.
As Mr. King points out, many of these fears were exaggerated, and revelations about the "supposedly indefinite" land mine threat do not account for one important factor: time. He notes that there has been virtually no research into the effects of time and the elements on land mines, even more advanced plastic models that supposedly remain viable for decades after they're buried. Such reseach is a necessity, because annecdotal evidence suggests that most forms of land-mines are vulnerable to the ravages of time and weather.
For example, steel-cased mines rust rapidly in wet, jungle climates such as Africa--where the land mine problem is most pressing. As the mines lose their structural integrity, it may disable the fuse mechanism, and render the device inoperable. Likewise, water, heat and cold take their tolls on trip wires that are sometimes used to trigger mines, and on wooden mines that are difficult to find with conventional detection gear. Even plastic mines are vulnerable to the environment. Mr. King observes that the rugged VS-50 and TS-50 mines utilize a plastic bladder as part of their blast-resistance mechanism. This bladder tends to degrade quickly with exposure to hot weather, and as a result, neither mine can function fully, though much of the weapon remains intact.
The implications of these findings are clear, according to Mr. King. Some mined areas may already be safe, while others can simply be fenced off for a few years and allowed to self-neutralize. It may also be possible to accelerate the ageing process (once it is understood), and develop counter-measures and detection gear based on these vulnerabilities.
You'll note that these results have been achieved without a single Hollywood photo-op or fund-raiser. That's because there isn't much publicity or public relations value in meeting with engineers and EOD professionals--the sort of people who are solving this problem, and made the discovery that time--and not celebrity activism--offers the best long-term hope for dealing with the land mine issue.
ADDENDUM: A reader's comments reminds me of the differing approaches used by various nations in dealing with the land mine threat. These "solutions" say as much--or more-- about about cultural differences than military capabilities, and they were aptly illustrated after the First Gulf War. Clearing Saddam's vast mine fields in Kuwait and became a multi-national task. In one sector, British and American EOD techs carefully cleared mines, decked out in full protective gear, and using state-of-the-art detection technology.
In the adjoining sector, an Egyptian unit was performing the same task, but with a decidedly low-tech approach. A line of Egyptian conscripts, walking shoulder-to-shoulder, advanced slowly through the minefield, poking at the ground with sharp sticks. When their stick struck something in the earth, the Egyptian would drop to his knees and carefully began digging. On at least one occasion, I was told, one of the troops missed a mine and triggered it, becoming "pink mist" in the blink of an eye. During a break, one of the Americans asked an Egyptian officer (who was not following his troops into the mine field) why his Army used such primitive methods, and didn't invest in protective gear for mine-clearing teams. Pointing at the conscripts, the Egyptian said dryly, "there are more where they came from," and ended the discussion with that.