WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- A deadly plague, one that shows no favorites, is on the loose around the world. Whether it strikes man or beast, young or old, it has only one mission; to kill or maim its victims.
The plague is the indiscriminate use of land mines in war zones around the world. The recent injuries among U.S. troops in Bosnia have brought attention to this man-made contagion.
In many countries like Bosnia, millions of unexploded land mines wait patiently for their next victim. Long since forgotten by those who laid them, whether during a military conflict or a dispute with a neighbor, the mine waits, creating huge problems for the future.
"Once you put a mine out there, it has no friends," said Capt. Kelly Slaven, doctrine writer with the Engineer Center's Directorate of Training and Doctrine.
"It won't differentiate between who runs over it. It will just explode and destroy whatever it is," he said.
How a mine gets to its lair is another story. There is a difference between legal military use of land mines and illegal, indiscriminate use, said Maj. William Brinkley, chief of DTD's doctrine development division.
"The guy who goes out and mines the woods so that the loggers have to pay him taxes, or a village so they have to pay taxes to whatever faction it is _ that's your mine problem," he said. The trained personnel who lay proper military minefields are not the chief problem, he said. It is the militias and other groups who indiscriminately lay mines who cause the problems, he said.
"Most of your professional guys, they will mark (a mine field), record it, and they will know where (the mine fields) are at, so they don't kill themselves," Slaven said.
"There's a direct corollary between the professionalism of a force using mines and how well they're marked and recorded, and that's worldwide," Brinkley said.
Once the mine is in place it is very elusive, passively performing its mission undetected. Usually it simply lies buried until someone has the bad luck of detonating it.
"It's extremely dangerous and extremely hard to locate an unmarked mine," Slaven said. "It's not an easy task. Most mines are found by the explosion. If you look for one of the indicators we teach and train ourselves to use, there's a connection in finding one," he said.
The indicator, he said, may just be something out of the ordinary, a manmade marking of some kind. Trip wires, surface-laid mines or signs of explosions in the area are other indicators, Slaven said.
"Most mine fields -- the professional ones -- are marked. If you see a marking, it's kind of obvious you don't go there," Slaven said.
The actual detection of a mine is a long and tedious process using one of two methods, Slaven explained. The first method is visual, when a mine is seen. The mechanical method depends on a plow or detector to reveal hidden mines.
Surface laid mines, deployed from a helicopter or a rocket, can be seen, but may be obscured by deep grass or snow. Most mines are planted beneath the surface and are found with the help of a large plow or a mine detector, usually mounted to the front of a tank or truck.
Once a mine is discovered, the work gets even more dangerous. Once a mine detector (basically a metal detector) finds something, its crew must stop and carefully unearth the object to determine if it is a mine or merely a piece of metal, he said.
On an individual level, the soldier would use a non-metallic probe to find and unearth the mine, Slaven said.
"Our guys now are using a fiberglass rod to probe with because the smarter mines will detect metal and will explode on contact," he explained.
Regardless of what type of mine is encountered, the danger is always the same. Another constant when dealing with mines is function -- to deny an enemy access to a particular piece of ground or slow his progress.
"A lot of times we use tactical mine fields to hold an enemy force in an engagement area and slow them down, to give us better shots with our direct fire," said Slaven.
Many mines are also relatively inexpensive, which may contribute to their indiscriminate use.
"Mines are very cheap and effective. If you want to deny your enemy access to a piece of ground or access through an area, put land mines out and he can't go there," said Dr. Robert Sickler, manager of the Engineer Center's Robotics Technology Insertion Activity. RTIA develops and tests robotically controlled mine detecting and removing devices.
Adding to the problem of forgotten land mines are uncharted mines laid, for example, by people in areas of ethnic strife.
"We've found that in (Bosnia), because of the ethnic problems, people have mined the fence lines between themselves and the neighbor," Sickler said. People obtain these mines through a variety of ways, he said. They may dig up a military mine field, cannibalizing the mines for their own use, or they may get the devices from a friend or relative in a militia force. All the mines acquired informally usually go uncharted, compounding the land mine problem.
"In war torn areas, military weapons fall into the hands of civilians. It's not uncommon to see locals walking around with AK-47s," said Dorian D'Aria, threat specialist for the office of intelligence and security at Fort Leonard Wood.
"The same thing applies to land mines. A lot of times mines will fall into the hands of civilians and they will use them to protect their farm or their family," he said.
"They'll use them against their neighbor. In some places, like Cambodia, you can get mines like you can get a 'Saturday night special.' It's not just the uniformed personnel who have mines," D'Aria said.
"The people who are farmers by day and belligerents by night have them, as well as the average people who are just trying to keep the war at bay," he said.
"Mines are the weapon of choice for an insurgent group," D'Aria added. "The advantage of using mines is kind of like an economy of force operation. You can engage your opponent and inflict casualties on him without the necessity of direct combat action," he said.
Although the issue of mines seems like a fairly recent phenomenon, it has been a problem for years, he said.
"In the past we've ignored regional or other international problems and contingency missions because they didn't compare as significantly as the potential for conflict in eastern Europe," D'Aria said. Some of these regional conflicts developed over generations. Since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the United States has changed its focus to other problems, including land mines, he said.
D'Aria added that he does not foresee quick resolutions.
"It's not an overnight problem and it's not going to be an overnight solution," he said.
According to a recent State Department report, conflicts ranging from civil wars to world wars have left in their wake approximately 80-110 million land mines in 64 countries around the globe, he said. With more than 2,500 varieties of mines made by numerous countries using different fusing, keeping track of the mines is difficult, he added.
"The majority of (land mines) have been deployed in the past 15 years," D'Aria said, "although some go back much longer than that."
"People in Cambodia encounter mines every day from 20 years ago," Sickler said. "The mine fields have been in for a long time. They have a tremendous shelf life. You put it in the ground and it will remain effective for a very long time."
The efficacy of these mines does not decline as the mine ages, as Cambodian residents can attest. In fact, one of every 236 Cambodians has lost a limb, according to "Terror in the Mine Fields," a Public Broadcasting Service documentary.
These innocent people are residents of one of the most densely mined areas in the world, a deadly environment created by a quarter century of war. Only half of those who encounter a mine survive, according to the film. Those who do survive but lose a limb are seen as unwhole, both morally and physically impaired outcasts, and are forced to beg.
Another area still suffering from an infestation of land mines is the Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina. The tiny group of islands was the scene of an unlikely war between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982.
"It was over back in the early 80's. There are still areas of mines in the Falkland Islands that are not cleared," D'Aria said. Argentina has offered a reward to any private group or government who will assist in clearing the mines, he said.
"They can not, and right now they have those areas (mine fields) fenced off and they just don't go in there," he said. "They can't reclaim that area until the mines are removed."
Usually, land mines will remain in place until they become a big enough problem that they must be removed.
"There are some in Egypt from the Second World War. It just hasn't been a big enough issue to go out and clean them up," he said. "The mines that are targeted to be removed generally affect the population the most," he said. The first areas to be de-mined are usually industrial or agricultural areas where uncleared mines make a nation's post-war adjustment difficult, he said.
Recently the United Nations began putting money toward rectifying these problems by supporting humanitarian demining operations, D'Aria said. Unfortunately, there are more countries that need help than there are resources to assist them, he said. In the areas where the mines do not pose an economic impact, the mines remain.
Local people usually know where the mines are and avoid them.
"Generally, it's the local population who can tell you where the mines are at because they're the ones who run into them," D'Aria said.
Another problem land mines pose is their ability to move on their own, with a little help from Mother Nature. Laos is an example, D'Aria said.
"They lay mines on top of a hill. You go back after one monsoon season and the mines aren't on top of the hill anymore," he said. The heavy rains wash the mines down the hill and into a valley, where they become covered with sediment, with no pattern to their new locations. A mine detector may miss the mines, but after more erosion and soil movement, they may resurface again.
"Six months after you think the area was cleared, someone steps on it and sets it off," D'Aria said.
The land mine continues to be an issue today, presenting American troops in Bosnia with a dilemma.
"Our problem in Bosnia is trying to detect the mines," he said. "You can't breach a mine field unless you can detect it."
Most of the mines there were manufactured with minimal amounts of metal and use plastic cases, he said.
"A lot of the world's manufacturers want to sell a lot of mines," D'Aria said. It's easier to sell well-made mines, and well-made mines are hard to find, he said.
The modern day scourge of land mines has caused many to re-think their use.
"Everybody is worried about land mines being the big bad weapons system out there that kills kids," D'Aria said. "There's been a movement to make them more 'people friendly,' a mine that would detonate itself after a specified period of time, he explained, so not to create problems in the future. The problem with mines is not the ordnance itself, but control," he said.
Armed forces that enforce discipline, doctrine and training can control their land mines, he said, but countries such as Bosnia do not have that control. When a war zone is overrun with armed civilians, conscripts and other people without the necessary training, control over the mines is usually lost. That is when land mines become a plague.
It is uncertain if the responsible use of land mines will ever be realized, or will the future generations of war torn countries be forced to live with the same dilemma of their ancestors. One thing seems certain; until the urgency of removing the mines becomes paramount, the legacy of the land mine will continue for years to come.
Meanwhile the land mines will persevere, silently awaiting their next target.
(From the Fort Leonard Wood "Essayons.")