Attrition: Boots Versus Mines


May 15, 2014: The U.S. Army recently went looking for a “mine boot”. These are reinforced boots that limit injuries to troops who encounter the growing number of landmines being used by irregular forces and criminal gangs. These mines are not usually fatal, but they cause nasty injuries to the feet and legs, often crippling the victim for life. When someone sets off one of these mines it puts two or three of the troops out of action (the victim and one or two others getting him tended to and out of the area to receive more medical care). One such detonation will usually slow or stop the advance and warn the bad guys of who is coming after them. Mine boots not only minimize the injuries (which is great for morale) but make the troops more confident about continuing their advance.

In the past the U.S. would have started a development project to design and perfect a new mine boot. But now because of the Internet and the experience since 2001 of quickly finding what you need on the commercial market, the army went to an ally (Colombia) who was known to have been using several models of mine boots for nearly a decade. Sure enough, the Americans found a mine boot made in South America that had an impressive combat record and was ready for any evaluation the U.S. Army wanted to carry out.

It also turned out that there were lots of good mine boots for sale in South America because the place was a growing market for such gear, especially in places like Colombia. That’s because as Colombian troops and police continue to push back leftist rebels and their cocaine gang allies the government found itself with more landmines to deal with. The rebels and gangs have a lot of landmines and civilians are most often the victims. In the last two decades, since the Colombian rebels and drug gangs adopted land mines on a large scale, these weapons have killed or wounded over 10,000 Colombians. Some 36 percent of those losses were civilians, and nearly ten percent of the victims were children. While most mine boots are bought by security forces (military and police), as well as civilian deminers, more and more are being bought by other civilians, especially in Colombia where the factory and locally made mines are a growing problem.

In Colombia the army and police move around a lot more now that they are chasing the rebels and drug gangs out of rural areas and use a lot of foot patrols moving cross-country in unpredictable ways. Against that threat, the leftist rebels have had some success with landmines. These devices are simply planted in all possible routes the soldiers might use to approach a camp or drug operation. When a mine goes off it slows down the troops, and gives the rebels a warning. Thus the rebels need a lot of landmines. There are a lot of new Chinese and old Russian landmines on the black market, and manufacturing landmines is easy enough that local artisans sometimes do it for special orders from leftist rebels or drug gangs. There are a lot of dirt roads in the rural areas where the drug gangs and rebels operate, and larger anti-vehicle mines are a danger to government forces and civilians, or even bad guys who didn't get the memo on where they were planted. Civilians are the most frequent victims of landmines. Over three million people have been displaced by the war with the leftist rebels during the quarter century, often fleeing areas made uninhabitable by rebel mines.  Most of the displacements have occurred since 2002.

Landmines were outlawed by an international treaty in 1999, but this mainly applied to nations that don't have landmines or don't have any reason to use them. Colombian rebels and cocaine gangs have not signed the international agreement and find the mines a cheap way to control civilian populations and slow down the army advance. It takes more time, money, and effort to remove these mines than to place them. Colombia is seeking to speed up mine clearing by training local volunteers to be part of the part-time mine clearing teams. The government provides training, pay (pretty good by local standards), health and life insurance and increasingly more mine boots. When a new bunch of mines are found (usually by an animal coming across them), the team gets to work.

Despite efforts like this in Colombia, it has not been a promising time for those seeking to enforce the ban on the use of landmines. In the last few years Israel, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar (Burma) planted new mines. In addition, there are three countries still manufacturing landmines (India, Myanmar, and Pakistan). Arms dealers will still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus. China, Russia, and other communist nations were major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not just for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and preventing citizens from leaving these unpleasant dictatorships.

There has been a growing list of outlaw organizations that are ignoring the 1999 Ottawa Convention to ban landmines. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are manufacturing landmines in primitive workshops and using them against Pakistani, Afghan, and foreign soldiers, as well as Afghan civilians who refuse to support the Islamic terrorist group.

Despite the 1999 treaty, landmines are still causing over 5,000 casualties a year worldwide. About twenty percent of the victims are killed and 90 percent of them are males. This is largely because men are more likely to be out in the bush or working farmlands that still contain mines. A third of the casualties are security personnel (police and soldiers). This is because in many countries rebels and criminals are still using landmines, either factory made ones from countries that did not sign the Ottawa Convention or locally made models.

Landmines are simple to make and workshops are easily set up to do it. There's no shortage of mines out there, despite the fact that in the first few years after the 1999 Ottawa Convention was signed over 25 million landmines, in the arsenals of over fifty nations, were destroyed. But these nations were not users and rarely sold them either. For those who want landmines, they find a way to obtain and use them. The Taliban are the latest group to demonstrate this. Leftist rebels in Colombia have been making their own mines for years now, as have Islamic and communist rebels in the Philippines. There are believed to be over 100 million mines still in the ground and at least as many in military warehouses for future use.

The 1999 Ottawa Convention was supposed to have reduced land mine casualties among civilians. It hasn't worked because the owners of the largest landmine stockpiles, Russia and China, refused to sign. Chinese land mines are still available on the international arms black market. China is believed to have the largest stockpile, mostly of anti-personnel mines. The old ones are often sold before they become worthless. But even these mines, which go for $5-10 each, are too expensive for many of the criminal organizations that buy them. Land mines, competitive with the factory built ones from China, can be built for less than three dollars each. You can find all the technical data you need on the Internet. On the plus side these locally made anti-personnel mines tend to be less powerful than factory made ones and thus the mine boots provide even better protection when the wearer encounters an locally made mine.

Anti-vehicle mines are increasingly popular and are particularly common in poor countries where there are still a lot of dirt roads traveled by buses and trucks, carrying dozens of passengers each. While these mines are usually intended for military vehicles, mines can't tell the difference. As a result, in this year or next, Colombia or Afghanistan will have the largest number of annual mine casualties in the world.





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