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Infantry: Happy Trails
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November 5, 2012: Over the last decade terrorists have increasingly used mines and trailside bombs to attack foot patrols. The troops have been asking for lightweight tools to deal with this threat. Now they have another one. Weighing 16 kg (35 pounds) the MPLC (Man Portable Line Charge) is right because it’s light. It’s a simple device to use. A 24.2 meter (75 foot) rope, coated in plastic explosives, is propelled by a rocket in the desired direction from a small stand. When detonated the “explosive rope” clears a lane of mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) wide enough for infantry to get through. MPLC is much lighter than the existing 57 kg (126 pound) APOBS (Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System) system. MPLC arrived in Afghanistan earlier this year and has already been used nearly a hundred times in combat.

Many of the patrols in Afghanistan, especially those likely to meet the enemy, are carried out on foot. For years these troops have demanded a lighter system (that can be carried by one man) and now they have it. In addition to MPLC the troops have also received several generations of portable jammers (to prevent the use of cell phones to detonate bombs), lightweight UAVs (Raven), and dogs who can smell explosives.

It was only a decade ago that the U.S. Army began replacing the century old Bangalore Torpedo mine clearing system with the lighter and more effective APOBS device, and it became a crucial bit of equipment in the face of growing Taliban use of landmines and tail side bombs. APOBS first appeared in 2002, after eight years of development. Weighing a quarter as much as the older 205 kg (451 pounds) Bangalore Torpedo, the APOBS could be carried by two men, as opposed to the older system that required ten or more. APOBS can be set up in under two minutes. It uses a rocket system that carries a cable with explosives attached. The explosion clears mines and bombs from a 45 meter (106 foot) long and one meter (3 feet) wide path. MPLC does the same thing but with a shorter cable (rope). MPLC took less than a year to develop once the military put out a call for new designs.

Britain has something similar to APOBS, called Python, but it is not light enough to be carried by troops (which is important in many combat situations). Britain used Python for the first time two years ago in Afghanistan. Python uses a rocket that carries a 228 meter (700 foot) flexible tube filled with 1.4 tons of explosives. When the tube lands the explosives go off, destroying over 90 percent of mines, or other explosive devices, in an area 180 meters (558 feet) long and 7 meters (22 feet) wide. The cleared area has to be double checked for mines or devices that survived Python, but this can be done quickly and troops and vehicles can rush through the cleared lane if they are under fire.

The Python is basically an update of a similar system developed in the 1950s (Giant Viper). The U.S. has a similar system (the Mk 154 Mine Clearance System), which used rockets to propel a cable (stuffed with explosives) down a road. The explosives were detonated and all mines, and roadside bombs, are detonated or disabled over an area of 14 by 100 meters. The Mk 154 was originally designed to quickly clear mines during combat. But it turned out to work against booby traps and roadside bombs as well.

All these systems were developed from the bangalore torpedo. This system used explosives filled tubes that had to be pushed into position. The original bangalore torpedo was developed before World War I, for quickly clearing booby traps. A few years later it was found very capable for clearing barbed wire barriers during World War I and continued during World War II (when landmines were widely used for the first time).

APOBS received an upgrade in 2006 (Mod 2). Each APOBS system costs about $52,000. The army and marines have ordered over 10,000 and used most of those in combat and training. MPLC is cheaper ($3,600 each), as well as lighter, and is replacing APOBS in many situations. So far, 3,000 MPLC systems have been ordered.

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