Russia is expanding its use of landmines in Ukraine but removing them is proving difficult

Russia is expanding its use of landmines in Ukraine but removing them is proving difficult

Originally published in ABC News


One of crucial themes of the war in Ukraine has been the adaptation battle between the Ukrainians and Russians. Both sides have learned and adapted their tactics, technology and military organisations in order to improve their battlefield performance.

The most important recent adaptation for the trajectory of the war has been Russia's strategic shift to employing hundreds of thousands of landmines.

Landmines have been used in many conflicts. During World War II, the Australian troops in north Africa during the Second Battle of Alamein had to clear their way through German minefields nearly 10 kilometres deep. During the 1991 Gulf War, American and British troops had a similar challenge before they could engage the first line of Iraqi defences.

In military operations, advancing armies must clear minefields, break through wire entanglements, cross anti-tank ditches and destroy strong points. Because ground forces cannot always go around enemy defences like these, a combination of tactics and technology is required to penetrate them. Generally, this includes combined arms forces (infantry, tanks, combat engineers, artillery, electronic warfare, logistics and air support) and their application of breaching doctrine. These operations are the most complex of military operations and demand well-trained and well-led troops.

The enemy uses a "covered by observation and fire" tactic: watching and ensuring those who breach the minefield  can be brought under fire.

Technology to clear minefields is not keeping up

The operations to penetrate the Russian defences in southern Ukraine have been subject to much scrutiny. Observations such as the lack of Ukrainian air power, poor training or insufficient Western equipment have been offered. These have played a role. But there is a more fundamental reason why operations are proceeding slowly.

While military technology has advanced in the past few decades, the tactics and technologies for detecting, clearing and penetrating minefields has not advanced in the past 50 years.

Two recent technological developments have widened the gap between the challenge of breaching minefields and existing solutions.

The first is that battlefield observation is now pervasive.

As described earlier, obstacles need to be covered by "observation and fire". The Ukraine war has seen the development of a meshed civil-military network of sensors, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence. This is unprecedented in ground warfare. It was not a factor when current obstacle-breaching doctrine was developed decades ago.

The second development is digitised control of fire support.

Long range rockets, artillery, attack helicopters, loitering munitions, and electronic warfare are now synchronised with new-era digitised battle command systems, which are in turn linked to the meshed sensor network. Consequently, where decades ago it may have taken some time for an enemy to detect someone conducting a breach of their obstacles and even longer to bring them under fire, this is now a process that takes a minute or two.

Therefore, forces assembling for a combined arms breaching operation can be detected and engaged well before the operation starts. Forces that do get into the breaching operations can similarly be quickly targeted, and often will have scatterable mines fired behind them into the lanes they have cleared in the minefields.

The West's intellectual failure

This represents an intellectual failure by western nations. We have not anticipated the application of this new meshed sensor-fires complex to modern ground operations over the past couple of decades. There were months where we observed Russian defences being constructed.

At the same time, the past year has made clear trends in the reduction of time between detection and destruction on the modern battlefield. Yet still we failed to update the tactics and techniques of breaching minefields.

There is an urgent imperative to address this. While Ukraine has already begun adapting by conducting more dismounted mine clearing, in the short term, western nations should provide Ukraine of more mechanised mine-breaching equipment.

More than 1,000 specialised and armoured engineer vehicles — including mine rollers and ploughs as well as explosive clearance equipment — exist in European army organisations. Providing this would help Ukraine now and for the inevitable offensives required next year and beyond.

Western military institutions, supported by Australia, should establish a crash program to develop technologies for minefield detection and clearance that offer significant improvement in the speed and quality of such activities.

However, the physical means to assist is just the beginning. Doctrinal innovation is required to explore tactics of undertaking opposed minefield detection and neutralisation more quickly, without a guarantee of air control.

This is not simple, but if a rapid initiative was established to solve the technical, doctrinal, and training aspects of minefield clearing in modern conditions, we could make a significant contribution to current and future Ukrainian offensives. And, perhaps just as important, it would provide Ukraine with the means to clear the roughly 15 per cent of its territory that the Russians have contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance. This is a humanitarian imperative.

There is an urgent need to undertake this support for Ukraine. And if the Ukrainian challenge is not enough motivation for western governments, perhaps they should also appreciate that it is an imperative for their own military institutions. Other nations have noticed the effectiveness of the Russian defensive concept in Ukraine and are sure to use it against us in future.

There is no time to lose.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies