Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

Why military demining is not Humanitarian Demining


Many people employed in Humanitarian Demining have a military background. The ex-patriot specialists who lead the industry usually have a background that includes experience in one of the services in Europe, the former Soviet Union, the USA, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. The deminers themselves have frequently served during the conflict in the country where demining is taking place.

The disciplines learnt while serving in the armed forces can be very useful. Ex-soldiers tend to find it easy to obey rules, carry out disciplined procedures and be able to cope with physical hardship. They are trained to achieve goals. Some are also very good at managing men, although the management style does sometimes prove inappropriate in a different cultural context. On the downside, some ex-soldiers accept the received wisdom of their training and are very slow to accept that Humanitarian Demining is not the same as military demining.

Military forces involved in mine clearance on land or at sea are primarily concerned with making a route for safe-passage through the danger-area. The route may be a path for infantry or armoured vehicles or a passage for ships. Because sea-clearance is a rarity in Humanitarian Demining (except for dumped ordnance), this article concentrates on demining activity on land. The path created on land is often called a 'breach', and the term has been adopted in Humanitarian Demining with a subtly different meaning.

The basic aims of military mine clearance

When armed forces are trained in preparation for crossing a mined area in a time of conflict, several conditions are usually presumed.

First, the demining must be conducted quickly to preserve any element of surprise, or to reach a casualty quickly (the recovery of wounded personnel is usually covered in military training).

Second, the demining must often be covert, and may be undertaken in silence or under cover of darkness.

Third, the crossing should be conducted in a manner that minimises casualties for the soldiers: the safety of civilians who may later use the crossing is not usually a significant concern.

A passage or passages through the danger-area may be created using either manual assets or machines.

When using manual assets, engineers with appropriate tools work their way across the danger-area. In some cases this is done while lying down using metal-detectors and/or prodders. In some armies it may be done standing up using long-prodders or rakes. In most cases, the passage across the mined area is the minimum width required to move the army's assets across, and the deminers work closely together in order to complete the work as quickly as possible.

My own training with the British army (as a civilian) had me lying shoulder to shoulder with others and prodding the ground with a short bayonet.

When mechanical assets are used, the ground is generally processed in a way to give acceptable confidence that it is safe to walk or drive over. The devices that remain have had pressure applied so there is reasonable confidence that they should not detonate when men of vehicles use the passage created.

My own experience following flails and roller systems is that many pressure-operated devices remain, usually damaged and sometimes moved from their original position. All other ordnance remains. It is, however, generally 'safer' to walk over the processed area than it was before the machine passed, especially if one walks in the machine's tracks and visually inspects the area before placing each foot.

The 'breaches' created in military demining are not 'cleared' to the standards that apply in Humanitarian Demining.

This picture shows the chevron tracks of a large flail and the broken rocks left behind. On the bottom left is a V69 bounding fragmentation mine lying on its side and crushed into the ground. It would not be safe to step on that - so even the tracks cannot be considered 'clear' and should be traversed with caution.

Varied aims

The differences between the military drills and those in Humanitarian Demining arise because the aims are not the same. In Humanitarian Demining, the aim is not just to make a relatively safe passage, it is to remove all explosive items in a given area to a set depth. The end-users may not only need to walk over the land, they may need to dig it, build on it, or let their children play on it. In Humanitarian demining, the aim is not only to allow others to use a path in relative safety, they must be able to do so in complete safety. ['Complete safety' may be impossible to guarantee, but it must be the aim.] Furthermore, the process of search and clearance must also be safe. While it may be acceptable for combat personnel to be injured while making a passage through a danger-area, there is no such thing as an 'acceptable loss' during Humanitarian Demining. A risk-assessment while under fire may conclude that the faster the work is done, the safer the soldiers will be. But Humanitarian Demining is never conducted under fire, so the procedures do not have to be fast, they have to be safe for the end-users of the land and for the deminers themselves.

First, the search and clearance must always be conducted at whatever speed it takes to achieve total confidence of 100% clearance of ALL explosive hazards to the declared depth. Children will play on the land - and will probably pick up anything left behind. After a conflict, more civilians are injured by deliberate interaction with an explosive device than by stepping on a landmine, so all devices must be removed.

Second, the demining is always undertaken with the full knowledge of all interested parties. If any party objects, the work should be postponed. There is no point in demining an area that someone wants to be mined - they will either replace the mines after you have gone or attack the demining team, or both.

Third, the work must always be conducted in a manner that ensures the safety of the deminers.

When a 'breach' into an unknown area is made during Humanitarian Demining, it is always cleared of all explosive hazards to the required depth.

Different tools

Because Humanitarian Demining requires all the explosive hazards to be removed, the use of assets that only locate devices on or near the surface (such as bayonets used as prodders) is not appropriate because hazards will be left behind. Similarly, the use of machines that are designed to apply pressure onto pressure-initiated devices but leave all devices that are not pressure-initiated behind does not constitute 'clearance'. Most of these machines also leave some pressure-initiated devices, often in a more sensitive state, and accidents to deminers following up machines are relatively common.

Machines can be useful in preparing the area for deminers - removing the undergrowth and loosening hard ground - but cannot be used to replace search and clearance in Humanitarian Demining. 'Clearance' means that there is nothing dangerous left in the ground to the agreed depth, and the machines available to date cannot even achieve this is ideal test conditions.

Metal detectors that do not signal on tiny pieces of metal may be preferred when preparing a passage through an area in a combat situation. The speed penalty involved in pausing to investigate all metal may present a greater danger than the possibility of missing a mine. The speed penalty does not apply in Humanitarian Demining, so it is common for deminers to remove all detectable metal in areas where minimum-metal mines are anticipated.

Different rules

There are many different rules in Humanitarian Demining, the most obvious of which are listed below.

Reasons for demining: Humanitarian Demining is conducted for Humanitarian reasons. It is never done to benefit any armed faction and should not be conducted for political gain. In fact, donors sometimes have political reasons for choosing where to spend their money. When the political purposes give strategic military advantage to one side in a conflict its status as 'Humanitarian Demining' is in question. When commercial companies hire deminers to search and clear areas in pursuit of their commercial interests, that is 'Commercial demining'. Commercial demining may adopt the rules of Humanitarian Demining, but is being conducted for profit and so is essentially different.

International standards: There are internationally agreed standards for mine emplacement, although these are sometimes ignored in the heat of battle. The only internationally agreed standards for the removal of mines are the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS). These are guidelines rather than formal standards and were started with the support of the entire industry but were taken over by UNMAS (the UN Mine Action Service) in 2010. Because UNMAS often fails to apply the IMAS, their ownership has reduced the credibility of the standards with many. Nonetheless, the principles put forward in the IMAS are generally respected.

Safety: In a military context, it may be essential to work in inclement weather and to take measured risks. In Humanitarian Demining, it is not necessary to work in weather conditions that make an accident more likely to occur, and never acceptable to take risks except in case of an emergency involving civilians.

Safety distances: Because of the priority applied to the safety of people involved in Humanitarian Demining, deminers do not work so close together that an accidental detonation could seriously injure more than one person. Supervisors are generally allowed to approach working deminers in order to ensure that they are working properly, but they must wear the protective equipment appropriate for the anticipated threats in an area.

Overt operations: The local people should always know what is happening in Humanitarian Demining - indeed they should have been consulted during the prioritisation phase to ensure that the area being demined presents a real threat and/or inhibits normal life. For this reason there is never any need for Humanitarian Demining to take place covertly. It is never conducted at night, and never conducted in silence. Metal-detectors that have no loudspeaker (only earphones) prevent the supervisor hearing what the deminer hears and knowing whether he he is working as directed, so are often avoided. Communications within a demining task usually involve shouted commands, whistles, sirens and/or hand-held radios and telephones.

Transparency: Operators in Humanitarian Demining should make all details of their operations available within the wider demining community and to the national authorities, their donors and to UNMAS. This includes sharing details of accidents and failures, which is something that military groups are generally reluctant to do. The UNMAS failure to do this honestly is one reason for its low standing within the Humanitarian Mine Action community, but some Humanitarian Mine Action organisations are commendably transparent.

PPE: The protective equipment issued to soldiers in a combat zone usually includes a helmet and flak-jacket designed not to inhibit running or firing a weapon. The protective equipment issued to Humanitarian Deminers varies, but need only provide frontal blast protection with eye protection and a blast-apron. This is because experience has shown that the threat predominantly comes from the front and involves the accidental detonation of an anti-personnel blast device. The detonation of larger devices does occur, but protective equipment capable of preventing injury is either not available or not practical to wear during the activities that a deminer must perform. The deminer's protection does not have to allow him to run or fire weapons, but does have to protect him while kneeling to uncover devices with a range of tools.

Marking: All Humanitarian Demining is conducted with clearly visible marking to prevent deminers and others moving unintentionally into unsearched areas. The demined area must be permanently marked when the work has been completed. While military demining may sometimes involve the use of temporary marking, it is not usual for the marking to be conducted in the bright colours of Humanitarian Demining, or for permanent markers to be left.

Medical provision: While soldiers usually operate with a medevac provision, at times of combat it is not an absolute requirement that they should. In Humanitarian Demining, no work can be undertaken without the presence of a suitably qualified trauma medic and a well-equipped ambulance or medevac vehicle.

Removal of duds: In the urgency of a combat situation, anything that does not present an immediate threat will probably not be addressed. Inert, inactive, dud or unfuzed devices are also removed and destroyed during Humanitarian Demining.


Speed is not the main priority in Humanitarian Demining.

Civilians are always the beneficiaries of Humanitarian Demining activity.

Safety in Humanitarian Demining relates first to the safety of the end-user of the land, then to the safety of the deminers.

Humanitarian demining requires the removal of ALL explosive hazards whether fuzed, fired or otherwise.

There is no such thing as a level of "acceptable injury" during Humanitarian Demining.

The purpose of conducting Humanitarian Demining must be the pursuit of "humanitarian" concerns, not commercial, political or military advantage.


As part of an international peacekeeping role, some armed forces engage in Humanitarian Demining and recognise the differences outlined above. Which means that not all demining conducted by serving soldiers is 'military demining'.