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Are we getting enough bang for our buck?

Are we getting enough bang for our buck?

A discussion on the Australian Army use of Anti-Tank landmines and the future

Landmines are weapons that deliver some of the most decisive military effects employed in military history. They are effective but controversial weapons that have been employed successfully, but sometimes ruthlessly, in warfare for more than a century. The reason that they are so effective is that they modify the behaviour of combatants and populations in their primary role of denying terrain. Their misuse is deplorable, devastating, and it is usually non-combatants that suffer from un-cleared landmines in the years post-conflict.

The primary purpose of this post is to generate discussion on the current context on how Army uses (or doesn’t use) Anti-tank (AT) landmines. The secondary purpose is to conceptualise what may be done to replace the effects our doctrine expects.

Australia is a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. This means the Australian government has agreed to certain restrictions, standards of employment and technical specifications when certain forms of explosive devices are used. Under these conventions, Army is still able to utilise AT landmines responsibly and during times of war. However, the Army currently does not have the equipment, ammunition and suitable training systems to support the employment of AT mines. While many think the Ottawa treaty has made mine warfare a lingering artefact of the 20th century, their recent effective use in Ukraine and the Middle East has made combat engineers in western nations take notice of this emerging gap in our training and capabilities.

Large portions of our manoeuvre doctrine rely upon counter-mobility effects that are provided by the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE). AT landmines are central to supporting the generation of tactical and operational counter-mobility effects. Unfortunately, without the systems to support the employment of AT mines, our doctrine and plans are quickly found wanting.

Why do we need to even consider AT mines? It would be a difficult task for a force to achieve the battlefield doctrinal effects of disrupt, fix, turn and block without AT mines. These tasks are entirely environmentally dependent, but every officer has been trained to rely on RAE to provide AT mine-based obstacles in support of counter-mobility effects. The Army has divested itself of its training mine stocks, holding no live anti-personnel or AT landmines in its inventory, in accordance with the intent of the Ottawa Treaty. The School of Military Engineering teaches the theory of deployment, but no live mine training occurs. The force conceptually thinks about using mines, but practically cannot. To use a military term: "Fitted for, but not with."

It is unlikely that the Australian Government will authorise the use of AT mines anytime soon. With gaps in underlying systems, a decision to employ AT mines will present significant challenges in the provision of conventional counter-mobility battlefield effects. Training and deployment systems will need to be modified to achieve these effects. Modern AT mines are more complex than the Gen 1 and Gen 2 mines that Army has used in the past. Gen 5 mines have complicated electronic fusing and different operation modes available for their employment. ‘Just-in-time’ training and capability acquisition are unlikely to be enough to ensure effective use of modern AT mine technology. The Future Land Warfare Report 2014 defines the future operating environment as crowded, connected, lethal, collective and constrained. This requires consideration in how military systems will be employed, and in the case of AT mines, how they will be planned and used in war as well as the logistics system to support that use.

Let us assume that the Government will not approve the use of AT mines in the future.  Looking for a suitable counter-mobility alternative, either non-explosive or explosive, is a challenging thought experiment. To ensure Army can generate an AT mine-like effect, both defensive and offensive, it is this author’s opinion that the following key design characteristics of mines should be considered:

  1. They are cheap
  2. Simple in function/design
  3. Recognisable to most rational actors
  4. Stealthy when employed correctly
  5. Easily mass produced.

With that in mind, we need to understand what landmines are intended to do. I contend that the intent is not killing, maiming, immobilising or destroying targets, but rather the use of landmines is about modifying human behaviour. If a minefield is lain, and no-one enters it but seeks to avoid it, then the aim has been achieved. If a legitimate military target unknowingly enters it and functions a mine, the intent is likewise achieved, albeit differently: the target is presented as an example to everyone else in proximity.  People in the vicinity are unlikely to enter the minefield (less rescuing or deliberate breaching efforts) thus modifying their behaviour to move to a location of your choosing through the design of the obstacle. Mines shape human behaviour because the explosive hazard scares people, and the will to live of a rational actor is hard to override. Mines achieve counter-mobility effects through behaviour modification.

Unfortunately, these design characteristics make it difficult to find a replacement. Admittedly some characteristics will be relative as technology improves. It is untenable to use only physical obstacles (non-explosive) to generate counter-mobility effects on a suitable scale. If an enemy knows you do not use mines, it will rapidly reduce your physical obstacles with significantly less effort required than if mines are involved.

One potential solution to remediate this capability gap is to look to small unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. The Fourth Industrial Revolution highlights that some of the characteristics of AT mines could apply to drones. The barrier to entry for their employment is very low, and with nation-state resources development is sure to be rapid.

Imagine a scenario where 100 000 3D-printed drones have been rapidly manufactured, each with HEAT or fragmentation warheads,  which can be deployed to a flank or engagement area without placing ADF members in harm's way. The drones move into a pre-programmed (geo-fenced) area and optimise their layout to maximise detection capability and explosive effects. These drones could loiter in low-power mode for extended periods and generate the counter-mobility effects of ‘classical’ minefields. Once they are no longer required, they can be detonated remotely or move to be retasked elsewhere. In this scenario, moving flank protection in the form of bounding minefields is possible. These minefields could function in three dimensions, not just in a ‘2D’ panel on the ground. An ‘area of denial’ that can also deny airspace, such as through the use of anti-helicopter mines – but in this case, anti-helicopter drones would be of supreme interest to any modern military.

Pragmatically, concerns surrounding GPS denial, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and secure communications are valid. The debate must occur to see if these devices would fall within the definition in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons or other relevant treaties. It is likely they would fall within a grey area between a smart munition and a drone, and policy would need to be written to define their parameters of use. As forward-looking as these documents might be, it is likely they will need revision to account for technological advances.

Even if Australia chooses not to pursue this kind of development, it is inevitable that others will. Military research is already extensively developing small UAS technology after ISIS demonstrated that simple tweaks can have significant military effects at meagre cost.

So to the community of military professionals, I pose the question: If Australia is unwilling to employ AT mines, how can we achieve a comparable counter-mobility effect? I look forward to the debate.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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