Andy Smith

NVESD and the publicity machine

March 2004

Issue 7.3 (2003 - issued in March 2004)) of the JMU Journal of Mine Action has a picture of NVESD's Mine Clearance Cultivator (MCC) on the cover. It also has articles by Joe Lokey, Sean Burke and Colonel Vosburgh praising NVESD and their annual "workshop".

Sadly, these reports are not honest. The cover picture shows the MCC working in non-suspect areas - under test. In June last year (2003) the machine was moved towards its first genuinely suspect area in Southern Angola. Despite working to an unacceptably shallow depth when seeking tank mines, it unearthed a mine as it was intended to do. But instead of moving it to the side and depositing it for a deminer to safely disarm, it detonated it. The cultivating attachment was severely damaged. By November last year the MCC had been expensively repaired and it was moved into a suspect area for the second time. This time the cultivator attachment was destroyed when it encountered its first mine. Two mines, two expensive repairs.

After the first accident, no formal independent accident report was generated. After the second, I was asked to compile one as a favour to the contractor. That accident report (edited for anonymity) is available to read at Independent report on the US Mine Clearance Cultivator (MCC) accident. It was heavily criticised by NVESD because it includes "Conclusions" and "Recommendations" and because I am not a formally qualified mechanical engineer. Both "Conclusions" and "Recommendations" are recommended when accident reporting to the International Mine Action Standard, but are apparently not part of US government reporting requirements. In HD, there is no obvious advantage in using a qualified mechanical engineer to investigate an accident, and it is not a requirement.

The picture above shows the cultivator attachment of this 32 ton machine after the blast

The MCC with attachment weighs too much for any road bridge in Southern Angola. Radio controlled from its very fancy command vehicle, it has cost millions to develop and deploy - and yet its basic concept is flawed. Even in the relatively soft ground of Southern Angola it cannot dig deeply without breaking off its tines as it pushes forward. Tree roots wreck it - even when the trees were cut years ago - and rocks defeat it entirely. It is not even designed to unearth AP mines, only to expose very shallow AT mines. Any AP mines are meant to be left behind.

It is sad that the US taxpayers are expected to pay for these toys, and to continue to pay long after they have proven worthless.

Several of the other US technologies lauded as useful in the JMU articles could be criticised as thoroughly, but I will restrict myself to one further comment on the NVESD annual workshop because that rated an entire article. In the early days, I attended that workshop and encouraged others to do so. In those days, criticism was invited and new ideas encouraged. Sadly it has degenerated into a pointless self-congratulatory exercise at which free-gifts are given to the faithful. Attendees are rewarded for their uncritical attendance with gifts of technology toys that no commercial enterprise buys (unless subsidised by their governments to do so).

Staffed by bureaucrats with no idea of demining (beyond the odd tourist trip) the NVESD team was always going to find it hard to be of any real help. In the early days, it did try - and people such as myself and Colin King were employed as subject matter specialists. Times changed and NVESD has now been flying close to the wire for several years. The Humanitarian Demining R&D effort at Fort Belvoir has started to act as though it believes that presentation is more important than content. And they are right. In politics, presentation can be more important than content, but only if you accept it at face value. In the field, deminers cannot afford to do that.

In summary, the work of NVESD is often not what it seems - but is only worth criticising to offset the manipulation of its latest publicity drive. Look at James Madison University's Journal 7.3 - misleadingly dated 2003 but only available on line in 2004 and in print in March 2004. The first four articles talk up US efforts that are speculative (not yet of any value) and unlikely ever to be, and are entirely uncritical.

Why does NVESD have a problem with criticism? If no one is ever allowed to highlight mistakes, progress becomes entirely a matter of hit&miss guesswork. Why do they claim success that is simply untrue? Don't they realise that we learn from honest appraisals of what does not work at least as much as we learn from our successes?