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The minefields of Ukraine  

Giant Western mine-clearing vehicles are clearing paths, inch by inch, through the deadly minefields of Ukraine.  

As of April 2023, it is estimated that 174,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory is contaminated by landmines sown by Russia. Facing the Ukrainian army in their goal to recapture their Russian-occupied territory, each major village and town is surrounded by hundreds of meters of minefields. To clear their occupied lands, the Ukrainians require huge mechanical mine clearing machines supplied by the West.  

Based on figures supplied by Oryx and Wikipedia, it is estimated that Ukraine has been supplied with about 105 of these monsters. They estimate it is only 15 percent of what they need. Not all this equipment is of equal value; this war is unique from its predecessors, for which this equipment was originally designed to combat. 

First, the mines themselves.  

Russia has deployed every type of mine available — and made variations of their own. The primary mines the Ukrainians must destroy to advance are anti-tank mines. Most anti-tank mines go off in one of two ways; by weight, as the heavy track rolls over it, or by a plastic tilt rod that is screwed into the top of the mine. The tilt rod resembles a car radio antenna but is normally black or green plastic and stands a few feet tall. As the tank passes over the mine, the belly of the tank pushes the tilt rod, which detonates the mine. A soldier would not be heavy enough to set off an anti-tank mine by stepping on it, but could inadvertently brush against the tilt rod enough to set it off.  

Why is mine-clearing in this war different from that in recent wars? 

The primary difference is that drones are being used to spot and update artillery fire while the mine clearing operations are underway. Expensive and specialized equipment is being destroyed or disabled in the minefields. If a breakthrough is made or mine-free path is created, the observation drones are then spotting for the attack helicopters. Mobile anti-aircraft units behind the initial front-line units, normally waiting to ambush the helicopters, are also destroyed with artillery. Hence the slow progress of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. 

So, how do the Western monsters fare? 

There are two main types of mine clearing machines of the hundred or so that have been supplied to Ukraine. They usually either ploughs or flails (spinning chains).  

The plough clearing machines are usually more effective but are very slow. The average speed for most if these monsters is between 5 to 15  kilometers per hour. The American M1150 is on an Abrams chassis and weighs an incredible 72 tons. It does, however, have the extra feature of being able to throw M58 MICLIC explosive lines 100 meters in front of it, clearing a path for follow-up vehicles.  

Unfortunately, in combat, the Ukrainian soldiers claim that many of the plough vehicles are too loud, too slow, and make easy targets for drone-spotting Russian artillery. On the other hand, several of these, such as the Armtrac 400 (23 tons), can be remotely controlled, sparing Ukrainian casualties.  

The German-made WiSNET 1 vehicle (44 tons), on a Leopard tank chassis that uses flails to dramatically explode mines, is certainly faster, with an average speed over 50 kilometers per hour. It appears that Ukraine has about 56 of these monsters. Unfortunately, mine clearance rates as low as 50 to 60 percent have been reported. Effective clearance requires both suitable conditions and experienced flail operators. Mine-clearing flails do not operate effectively on a gradient greater than 30 percent or on ground that is especially dry or boggy, as in some parts of Ukraine.  

The Ukrainians seem to have gone for the best of both worlds, and are home manufacturing, under licence, the DOK-ING MV-4 remote-controlled mine-clearance vehicles. They are light (5.5 tons), adaptable, quiet and cheap. The Ukrainians are also working with the Danes to locally produce the 18-ton Hydrema 910 mine clearing vehicle — a unique truck that reverses backward over minefields.  

Some commentators have suggested that the Ukrainians use artillery to clear paths through minefields, as was done in many 20th century wars. However, post-1970 mines have fuses are designed so that they are not triggered by the very short duration pressure wave of an explosive. They also started using less sensitive explosives and even experimented with thermobaric and cluster bombs for demining. Thermobarics generate longer duration pressure waves and a lot of heat. The results were unsatisfactory. The small charge of a cluster munition bomb is not going to disable a mine unless it drops right on top of it. 

In the meantime, Ukrainian sappers go out at night, and manually clear paths though minefields. They use night-vision goggles, hand-held detectors (mainly from South Korea, the UK and Japan) and “spider boots” (often made in Ukraine on 3D printers). This ungainly footwear elevates their feet to give some protection from a blast. Mine-clearing by this method is highly stressful and dangerous.  

The Ukrainians welcome Western mine-clearing machines and want more of them. These machines have already cleared 80,000 mines on Ukrainian soil. It will take decades to clear the rest.  

Meanwhile, Balandina, a 23-year-old nurse, and Mykola, an 11-year-old boy, have both lost their legs to landmines. Nikita, a 21-year-old Russian soldier, will return home without his legs. Over 30,000 people in Ukraine require prosthetic limbs. Perhaps, when this pointless war is over, we will finally ban landmines forever. 

Patrick Drennan is a journalist based in New Zealand, with a degree in American history and economics. 

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