The Economics of Demining Defines Success and Failure


Over 100 million land mines lay scattered across the world. Every week, 200 more innocent people die or suffer severe injury when they encounter these hidden menaces; many are children. Short of probing every square inch of every acre by hand, how can we rid the land of these war leavings?

And what does it cost?

There is a broad range of effective demining equipment under development today with a surprisingly wide range of development and operating costs:

The Swedish Bofors Mine-Guzzler is a huge, armored, disk earth-tiller with the proverbial cart before the horse. It pushes an array of hardened disks with toothed edges that "till" the soil ahead of it. A "discovered" mine is either exploded or chewed into little pieces. The Mine-Guzzler can be operated from its protected, armor-plated cab, or even remotely when the circumstances warrant.

The British Aardvark Mechanical Flail used a different approach. A rotating heavy steel rod extends from the wheeled end of the semi-track vehicle, containing a series of chains with hammers attached. As the rod rotates, the chains flail the ground to a predetermined depth, deactivating, destroying or exploding the mines.

The Danish/German Hydrema is similar to the Aardvark, except that it runs on large rubber tires, giving it considerably more roadability at the expense of field mobility.

The German Minebreaker 2000 mounts on a tank, typically the Leopard 1, that has been specially reinforced. It uses an armored steel tilling plate system similar to the Mine-Guzzler.

The British Minelifta takes a different tack. Using a large scoop, it ingests a portion of the ground in front, and then "digests" the dirt and whatever it contains with high impact flails inside a reinforced steel cowling. As the unit moves through a minefield, it furrows the ground behind it and removes magnetic particles, so that mechanical or even manual verification can be accomplished with safety.

All these devices are able to clear approximately a quarter of an acre per day - a thousand square meters or so.

Across the civilized world, well-intentioned people who recognize the problem are researching and developing solutions. Even the U.S. Army is developing a mechanical mine clearing device, a modified, reinforced bulldozer, spending over a half million dollars to date.

And that defines the real problem. Cost: of the equipment, and of the operation.

Typical development cost for a mechanical mine clearing unit is in the half-million dollar range, and the price for individual units ranges from $60,000 to several hundred thousand. Typical operational cost ranges from $3,000 to $15,000 per cleared acre.

We're talking big business here. In the late 1990s, for example, multinational Ronco landed a $250 million contract from the U.S. State Department to clear land mines in Kosovo and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that most mines are located in relatively impoverished areas. If a major nation steps to the plate, as the United States did in Kosovo, available large sums can accomplish much. On the other hand, where local authorities contract mine clearing, companies bid on the job, come in and clear acre after acre -- until the funding runs out. Then they pack up their gear and go to the next job.

Small, under-funded humanitarian organizations then try to take up the slack. These groups frequently organize themselves around a particular piece of mine clearing equipment, and then use this equipment to the extent of their limited funding. Nevertheless, a lot of the work at this level is accomplished with sniffer dogs and brave men poking the ground with non-magnetic probes.

Under these circumstances, clearing rates per man drop dramatically to just a few square meters per day.

This discussion begs the question of finding the mines in the first place. At least 800 different mine types populate the world's minefields. These range from home-made coffee can bombs to sophisticated "smart" non-metallic devices that can distinguish between potential targets.

No serious military thinker is willing to eliminate land mines from the military arsenal. This leaves us with the huge disposal problem we face.

As usual, we throw big money at the problem, and achieve some success. But this approach inevitably results in a costly solution. Ironically, our blindered focus on large-scale solutions has caused us to miss a ready-made answer to the problem.

In 1996, Daniel Wolf, former Professor of Political Science at the University of San Diego, founded Ploughshares Technologies, an offshoot to nonprofit Terra Segura International (TSI), which he established in the early 1990s to lobby for low-cost, low-tech mine-clearing strategies.

Ploughshares has developed the inexpensive Armadillo. Like some of its more expensive big brothers, the Armadillo relies on weight and disk tilling, but unlike the big guys, this unit does not run off a large, armor-plated behemoth. Instead, it is mechanically operated by cable and an optional small engine. The Armadillo costs around $15,000, a fraction of the price tag for the better-known units in use today.

Wolf estimates that it costs less than $700 to clear an acre using the Armadillo-- a far cry from the $3,000 to $15,000 cost of the big guys.

Wolf developed the Armadillo with $60,000 given him by hopeful investors, about one tenth the cost of the Army's expensive monster. Through TSI, he is promoting cost effective mine removal. Predictably, he faces a lot of opposition from entrenched interests and their deep pockets.

The U.S. Army has a vested interest in mine removal. Instead of developing half million dollar high-tech mine clearing bulldozers, it should put some of its development funds into projects like Daniel Wolf's TSI efforts, where a big bang for your buck is all in a day's work.