Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

Myths about mines and demining

I first wrote this paper to address some of the lies and myths and misconceptions that have restricted progress in Humanitarian Demining twenty years ago. Sadly, the same points still need to be made today.

In 1998 and 2003 I published articles about common myths in mine clearance in the JMU Journal of Mine Action. Over the intervening years I have received many messages supporting what I wrote, and none taking the opposing view. Looking over the original Journal articles, I have changed a few lines, added links and altered the stress here and there, but I believe that the list remains a relevant record of unhelpful myths. A few have been partly addressed, then forgotten. For example, support for the development of the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) was founded on an acceptance that it was not up to the West to dictate details of operation to National Authorities. This was largely responsible for the relative success of the IMAS but it was forgotten when UN bureaucrats decided that the International standards had to become UN standards in 2010. A few of the issues covered have become more complicated. For example, the use of modern munitions that act as victim-initiated devices but are not designed as mines complicates the question of whether the use of mines is really in decline in some areas. One or two of the other myths have become entrenched. For example, the idea that a Western trained EOD man is somehow needed or is naturally superior to a locally experienced deminer is now 'presumed' despite the fact that a higher proportion of Western trained EOD men have died in demining over the past ten years than local deminers with only a few weeks training. In many cases, the highly trained victims were so arrogant that they took risks that the locals did not dream of doing. Their military training was not always appropriate. What follows is a summary of the lies, myths and misconceptions that I addressed in my Journal articles. 

"If we can send men to the moon, we must be able to do better than a man with a detector and hand-tools!"

Critics often present the 'man with hand-tools' as an unsophisticated cave-man technology. In fact, it is more sophisticated than any artificial device yet available. No matter how many millions of dollars are thrown at robotics, it will be a very long time before machines equal the sophisticated array of data gathering and processing equipment that is a human being. When that is finally achieved, it will be even longer before that technology can be built into a low-cost, autonomous, self-repairing and self-replicating robot the size of a deminer.


A self-replicating robot in Bosnia Herzegovina


"Mines are the greatest killers in post-conflict regions."

In some areas, this is true but in most areas, it is the other hazardous detritus of war that claims the most lives. The truth is that, after a conflict is over and internally displaced people have returned to the home areas, all manner of abandoned or unexploded explosive hazards (that are not mines) combine to be the greatest threat to civilians. Sadly, most civilian accidents occur because they deliberately interact with explosive hazards – motivated to do so by curiosity, bravado or a desire to earn a few pennies by recycling the materials in them.


"More mines are being laid than cleared today."

While still quoted by the general public, I hear this argument less often than in former years – which is ironic because there is more truth in it now that there was a decade ago. In conflict areas more mines may have been placed than cleared in the last decade. But in those post-conflict areas that have a mature Mine Action Programme, (Angola, Cambodia, Croatia, Kosovo, Kurdish Iraq, Bosnia Herzegovina, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Jordan, etc., etc.,) the claim is not true. Sustained demining efforts have searched and cleared vast areas of land without any significant replacement of mines.

The activities conducted under the Humanitarian Mine Action umbrella have supported the establishment of stability in many ways and has been an essential part of internationally supported efforts to break cycles of violence and build the conditions for a sustainable peace.

The signing of the Ottawa Convention (Mine Ban Treaty) did mark a great reduction in the supply of mines as 'aid' to those engaged in proxy East/West wars, but it has not stopped it entirely. The main mine producers (excluding those in Europe) have not signed the treaty. They still use anti-personnel mines and may supply them to allies covertly. When mines cannot be sourced, there are easily improvised and have been in vast numbers from Sri Lanka and Myanmar to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. There are many examples of improvised mines (and other munitions) in the annex here.


"Mines have no place in modern warfare."

It would be so nice if that were true but the truth is that as long as conflicts continue, victim-initiated devices (mines) of one kind or another will be used. Most have always been used defensively as 'intruder-alarms' that allow a small force to control passage over large areas. When the chips are down, fighting 'By All Available Means' (BAAM!) is the norm. Victim-initiated devices are frequently used not only defensively but also to attack the opposition, civilian as well as military. When factory made munitions are not available to do this, alternatives have always been improvised.

International efforts to alter the BAAM mindset may be a way to change this. Genuine concern over the long-term effects of weapons will only become 'fashionable' if led by the world’s dominant military forces. At present, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and the USA have not banned the use of anti-personnel landmines – and all continue to develop other indiscriminate weapons that serve as victim-activated devices. This is because they are perceived as being useful combat tools and any 'collateral damage' they inflict is considered tolerable in times of conflict.

The willingness to use mines and other victim-initiated munitions and Improvised Explosive Devices IEDs) in recent conflicts illustrates how the ICBL's efforts to change the moral parameters that are acceptable in conflict has faltered. The ICBL has become part of the establishment that it was founded to oppose and there is some evidence that it has forgotten the ideals on which is was founded. So, use of anti-personnel landmines has reduced dramatically in most countries. But the use of indiscriminate, victim-initiated weapons continues and may well have increased.  


"You can meet deminers and find out about demining at conferences."

I define a 'humanitarian deminer' as someone whose principal day-to-day activity involves using their eyes, metal-detectors, hand-tools, or other means to physically search and clear areas where there are believed to be explosive hazards. These are usually local people. A deminer is not someone you will meet at a conference or someone who is paid a Western salary. Demining Managers and Technical Advisers do not actually clear mines themselves. I can think of only a handful of ex-pats who regularly demine among the many hundreds I have met in my travels, and these ex-pats do so out of a personal commitment to lead from the front, not because they are paid to do so. The ex-pat is far more economically occupied in training and management tasks (often, 12 local deminers can be employed for the same daily salary of one ex-pat, not to mention other costs that their employment entails).

Training deminers

"Demining is a specialist activity that takes a long time to learn."

In almost all countries with an active Humanitarian Demining sector, most field deminers are relatively uneducated local men and women. They may have a military background, but this background will not have involved any relevant training in mine detection and removal. Some organizations have new deminers working in a live area within ten days of starting their training. These deminers will then often work alongside a more experienced person for further 'on-the-job' training. This system works, and from the available accident information it looks as if the highest risk time among deminers is not their first weeks or even their first year of work.

The truth is that while demining is a specialist activity, it does not take long to learn. See Chapter 6 of the Global SOPs for a description of how manual demining is conducted.


"The rules of humanitarian demining must be set by Western specialists."

When I first wrote on this, the UN’s published rules were widely ignored even in programmes under the control of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). Commercial companies and NGOs made up their own rules, often in competition with each other, so best practices were not shared. With the development of genuinely International Mine Action Standards, this situation did change for the better. Based on widespread consultation and involving field people at all levels, the 2001 International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) were useful and were widely adopted by demining groups and National Authorities around the world. A few of the oldest demining groups held out and still insist on doing things much as they have always done, regardless of the improvements to safety that came from sharing knowledge. Some UN supported programmes were also been very poor at implementing the IMAS (see the UNMAS failings in Sudan).

So the rules have changed under the leadership of Western specialists, people who took great pains to achieve widespread practicality. The specialists led the process but they allowed the real-world to dictate the detail. This was a major achievement and the inclusion of provisions to update the standards regularly was a real breakthrough. But the involvement of field practitioners that achieved this was abandoned when UNMAS took control of the IMAS and made them UN Standards in 2010. Today, the IMAS review board has lost direction and cannot agree a path between politically correct idealism and field pragmatism. As a result, many new IMAS are published only as 'drafts' pending agreement which can only come after some balanced revisions. A lesson learned has been rapidly forgotten and the relevance of the IMAS is declining.

The truth is still that western military training is not an adequate, appropriate, or sufficient preparation for organizing Humanitarian Demining. It is also true that there is little evidence of value in establishing a remote bureaucracy to 'control' the industry unless that bureaucracy remembers who it was established to serve.


"The equipment issued to our military is the best in the world, so should be used in HD."

The reasons why military equipment is rarely the 'best' for demining are varied, including high cost, inappropriate design for the purpose, and unnecessary complexity. Military uses are not the same as those in Humanitarian Demining. For example, a metal-detector may be used once a year in the military, but will be used for long hours every day in humanitarian demining. The cost of its batteries or its ergonomic comfort may not be issues for occasional use, but they are when the metal-detector must be used for many hours every day. Similarly, the military requirement for speed can compromise the humanitarian requirement for safety – so that an appropriate detector for military use may be one that 'misses' small metal targets despite that resulting in the occasional casualty.

The truth is that equipment designed for a military purpose is rarely ideal for use in Humanitarian Demining.

"Locally made demining equipment is always of a low quality."

This is often a clear assumption behind the attitude of equipment purchasers. It is an attitude fostered by western suppliers of equipment who prefer everyone to source through them. The demining supply industry is a sophisticated, hard-sell extension of the arms supply business, so no one should expect it to value integrity highly.

The main advantages of demining groups having their equipment supplied from local sources are low-cost, ready availability, and easy maintenance or repair. The truth is that adequate, locally-made tools and equipment exist and are widely used. Sophisticated items such as blast visors, body armor and blast-resistant hand-tools are also made in Africa. The best of these are bought by European suppliers and sold under their own company logos at high cost, but are made at low-cost elsewhere. Ignorant purchasers pay twice the price for the same equipment because of their prejudice against purchasing from sources outside the developed world.

Deminer in Africa using locally made armour, visor and tools:
the same equipment sold on by European suppliers.


"We need to spend millions of dollars and use our best brains and facilities to develop new equipment for demining."

Since 1994, I have still only seen a few areas of major change in the equipment used on the ground. These are in manual deminer tooling, protection, metal-detectors and mechanical assistance. None of the recent changes are the direct result of any western Research and Development (R&D) efforts, although a few research efforts have built on field-led breakthroughs. Reasons for this failure of R&D effort range from confused design criteria (mixing military needs with those of Humanitarian Demining) to an arrogant ignorance of the problems in the field. In many cases, the inappropriateness of the new equipment has been made obvious early in its development but after the funds have been granted the work must go on.

Commercial equipment developers have understood field needs far more successfully. Examples include robust ground compensating metal-detectors and  the increased use of converted plant machinery. Many field groups have adapted existing plant equipment to meet their mechanical-assistance needs. Ironically, when they have attracted research and development funding to do this, their output has generally been far less focused and cost-effective.

The truth is that demining equipment has been developed in the field at a fraction of the costs being spent on developing unsuitable equipment in R&D programmes. If some of that cost were dedicated to demining, the money could achieve far more in terms of safe land returned to the community. But the R&D money is generally NOT available for actual demining so I generally support the research efforts in the hope that there will one day be a significant breakthrough. See Field and Research.

Arjun demining rake

This is an Arjun rake, converted from an excavator by an Indian demining NGO in Sri Lanka. These tools proved very successful at preparing ground and at one time 14 were in use by five different demining organisations. As far as I know, no one is using them today - probably because no one markets them. The originals were all built on second-user machines and were converted back to civil use when the funding for demining was cut.


“A mine cleared is a limb saved”

It is often said that, “Every mine cleared is a life or limb saved”. A statement often linked to the claim that, “Demining is so slow that it makes sense to speed it up by reducing the quality of the clearance”.

The truth is that incomplete search and clearance of an area leads to local people believing the area is safe – and so starting to use it. Their risk of injury actually increases because some of the explosive hazards present were removed. In this case, a mine removed can be directly responsible for a limb lost.

It is frequently argued that 'area-reduction' need not be as thorough as search and clearance – so it should be acceptable to use methods that are known to be inefficient. Flails and one or other roller-system are favourites. They are known to be very inefficient at detonating pressure devices, cannot reliably pull pins from fragmentation mines or grenades and always leave all abandoned or unexploded ordnance intact. The advocates of these machines conveniently ignore the fact that abandoned or unexploded munitions cause more civilian injuries than mines. The local people watch the impressive machine work and believe that the 'reduced' area is actually a 'safe' area, so the distinction between 'area reduction' and thorough search and clearance is lost on them. They enter an unsafe area with false confidence.

Part of the reason that people make these arguments is a desire to find a use for the machines – developed with millions of dollars of research money but never able to achieve the clearance levels of manual deminers. Another reason is the perceived need to increase the speed of demining by using new technologies. Managers seek to prove their own worth by increasing 'cost-efficiency' without concern for quality, and they do this with the encouragement of donor representatives who also score points for 'numbers' rather than reality.

The truth is that it is safer to mark a dangerous area clearly and leave it until later than to release a dangerous area for public use.


"Demining is too slow." 

It is frequently stated as an obvious fact that we are just not working fast enough – and that this justifies spending huge amounts of money trying to develop a faster way of searching and clearing the ground than by using manual deminers.

But manual demining is not unnecessarily slow. It is in some areas – often due to lack of funding but sometimes due to inefficient management. In many areas it is remarkably thorough and relatively fast. It also supports post-conflict recovery by giving jobs to locals and so putting money into the local economy.

Experience in Europe provides evidence that speed of search and clearance is not really the issue. More than a dozen commercial EOD companies still operate in Germany, and thousands of tons of WW1 ordnance is known to still litter old battle areas in Belgium and France. What is necessary is to establish a sustainable local demining capacity – because some search and clearance is likely to be needed for decades to come, no matter how fast people work today.

The truth is that manual demining is only too slow when the necessary funds and expertise are denied – and that spending demining money on 'clearance' machines does not really search and clear any ground so is not a cost-efficient way of reducing risk to civilians.


“Never mind capacity-building, clear the area and move on”.

While it would be convenient if humanitarian demining really did involve a known number of finite tasks that could be prioritised and finished with total confidence, past experience shows that this is just a pipe-dream. When it is accepted that problems with the Explosive Remnants of War will remain for decades as they have in Europe, the need to develop a sustainable national capacity becomes paramount. This imperative moves Humanitarian Demining completely away from the mechanistic in-and-out mindset of a military operation and into the field of 'sustainable development'. Many people recognise this, but the industry is still dominated by ex-military officers at all levels. The reason for this dominance is not that demining requires any military training or skills – especially not those of senior officers. Humanitarian Demining was seen as a job-opportunity for the many ex-officers who came onto the job-market after the end of the Cold War and they saw themselves as being 'the right people at the right time'. They may have been partly right, but a jobs-for-the-boys approach has ensured that they appoint military successors in a cycle of well-meaning but relative incompetence that has been impossible to break to date.

There are notable exceptions – ex-military people who have set out to learn about the countries and cultures they find themselves in, and about Humanitarian MIne Action as opposed to military minefield breaching. But the majority of those in high positions in this industry have no relevant training or preparation for a role that requires the intelligent promotion of 'sustainable development' and full integration with other peace-building efforts. Even the exceptions tend to have short term appointments that do not allow sensible long-term planning. To be fair, it is not always obvious who should replace them because the 'development' industry has also had rather too many failures to inspire great confidence.  So those with experience in development programmes are not necessarily any better qualified, and even when they are – they frequently believe that you need soldiers to deal with explosives.

The truth is that the profession of Humanitarian Demining needs to be led by people 'trained' by on-the-job experience who understand and respect the goals of Humanitarian Mine Action. Some of these will be ex-soldiers, and some ex-development workers. If the industry is to progress, the leaders of the old-school must move aside to let those who have the relevant experience to promote 'sustainable demining' as part of peace-building take over. Leadership positions in Humanitarian Mine Action should not be allowed to be a sinecure (or a retirement home) for old officers or for career bureaucrats within the UN.