As U.S. troops count down the days before a ground offensive against Iraqi forces in Kuwait, combat engineers have intensified training to overcome one of the nastiest obstacles in their path: land mines by the thousands.
U.S. military officers, aware of the mines' deadly potential, say their strategy calls for flanking movements around massive Iraqi mine fields and creation of narrow safe lanes to pass through them. This would allow troops and tanks to rush past most of the countless mines believed laid by Iraqi forces in the six months since they started erecting a patchwork of multi- layered defensive lines that also include berms, tank ditches and wire.
"As the attacker, I don't want to breach any obstacle; I want to bypass it," explained a U.S. mine specialist with Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia.
But at many points along the Saudi-Kuwaiti and Saudi-Iraqi borders, U.S. and allied troops have been told, they nevertheless will have to punch paths through a deadly obstacle course in which Iraq's antipersonnel and antitank mines are devastating weapons. Since mines can be filled with mustard gas or nerve agents as well as explosives, this also has become one of the dangers U.S. troops will face in the advance against Kuwait, the U.S. mine specialist added.
In an indication of the danger posed by Iraqi mines, Saudi army Col. Ahmed Robayan said yesterday that one Saudi soldier was killed and six were wounded while clearing Iraqi mines in the Saudi town of Khafji.
Since Roman times, when centurions dropped barbs on the ground, mines on the battlefield have acquired great psychological power, the U.S. officer said. For that reason, Iraq is believed to have followed military doctrine calling for scattered mines across the desert to make U.S. ground soldiers or armored units believe they are in a full minefield even when they are not. Although staying away is the simplest way to counter mines, U.S. and allied forces in Operation Desert Storm have a range of weapons to use against minefields that must be crossed. Marine Lt. Chris Simmler, a 23-year-old combat engineer from Franklin, Mass., now stationed in the Saudi desert, explained that the smartest weapons to neutralize Iraqi minefields are those that can be fired from a distance.
Simmler, who was practicing with his anti-mine company just south of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, said U.S. forces would open any attack against Iraqi defenses with massive bombing that would explode most of the mines. This would be followed by similarly massive artillery and mortar barrages that would help explode remaining mines, he added. Up to 80 percent of the mines could be exploded in this manner, Simmler estimated. To break paths through remaining Iraqi defenses, he noted, combat engineers are equipped with bulldozer tanks, armored bulldozers and tracked vehicles that have rakes, plows and rollers to detonate mines before assault tanks move through a cleared lane.
As he spoke to visiting reporters, Marine bulldozers plowed through make-believe minefields and attacked mock berms in training exercises that have become a daily routine for combat engineers.
Allied forces also have a device that the U.S. military calls a Mine Clearing Line Charge. A rocket is fired horizontally over a minefield, pulling along a 360-foot cable fixed with explosive charges.
When the charges are detonated, the expert said, they should clear 92 percent of mines along a path 300 feet long and 25 feet wide. Mine plows and rollers fitted to armored vehicles then dig up the others.
These weapons would allow troops and armor to barrel through a cleared route, leaving most of the mined and fortified areas behind them on either side, Simmler explained.
Only a few mines would remain in and around the pathway after such procedures, Simmler said. "As a last resort," he added, soldiers can use individual mine detectors to find any remaining mines and detonate them.
Even if the flanking works, mine fields could force advancing allied troops in some areas to delay operations, take alternate routes or channel through cleared lanes, becoming more vulnerable targets for Iraqi artillery fire likely to be covering the area, military analysts said.
Thick carpets of mines also could limit the ability of infantry to leave armored personnel carriers and disperse widely through battle zones, they said. "Land mines are the one thing that can bring armored warfare to a halt," said Terry Gander, editor of Jane's Military Logistics.
"They mesh very well with Iraq's more static fighting," said David Isby, author of a book on Soviet weaponry. "Like so much else with the Iraqi army, they prefer the mass, unsophisticated approach rather than high tech."
Mine clearers increase their chances of success if they know what they're looking for, analysts said. But Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has purchased mines so widely -- from Chile, the Soviet Union, Italy and Spain, among others -- that dozens of varieties could await allied forces.
Most of Iraq's mines remain a low-tech weapon in this high-tech war, but some have plastic casings and low-density explosive charges calculated to escape detection.
Iraq's inventory, estimated at up to 10 million mines, is likely stocked primarily with simple models, some experts have said.
At the same time, Iraq is thought to possess mostly mechanical mines and few of the more sophisticated models that detonate electronically after detecting vehicles, either by sensing vibration or a metal mass.
Most mechanical mines, though differing in detail, work on similar principles. A firing pin, usually spring-loaded, is released to strike a percussion cap, which explodes, setting off the main charge.
Cody reported from Saudi Arabia; Richards reported from Washington.
Iraqi forces have reportedly buried hundreds of thousands of land mines throughout Kuwait. Some are designed to kill enemy troops (anti-personnel mines), others are targeted against armored vehicles (anti-tank mines). Many of the mines in Iraq's arsenal were purchased abroad -- part of Saddam Hussein's massive military buildup. Some of the key mines Iraq is believed to possess:
PMN ANTI-PERSONNEL MINE
Weight: 1 1/2 lbs.
Height: 2.2 in.
The Soviet-made PMN non-metallic mine contains a half pound block of TNT. When a person walks over the mine, the pressure causes detonation.
TM-57 ANTI-TANK MINE
Weight: 21 lbs.
Height: 4 1/2 in
The Soviet-designed TM-57, laid by hand or mechanically, contains 15 lbs. of TNT. The force of the mine is enough to badly damage a tank's treads or even tear into its belly.
OZM BOUNDING ANTI-PERSONNEL MINE
Weight: 6 1/2 lbs.
Height: 4 1/2 in.
The Soviet OZM is buried in the earth, nose down, with only its fuse on the ground. When activated, with pressure or remote control, the mine jumps 5 to 8 feet into the air and explodes. Though designed as anti-personnel weapons, OZMs are powerful enough to disable armored vehicles. Mines that operate in this way are called "Bouncing Bettys."
'CLAYMORE' ANTI-PERSONNEL MINE
Weight: 3 1/2 lbs.
Height: 3 1/4 in.
Versions of the U.S.-designed "Claymore" anti-personnel mine contain hundreds of small ball bearings. When the mine is detonated, typically by remote control or by trip wire, the balls explode outward in an arc, striking everything within 150 feet.
SB-33 ANTI-PERSONNEL MINE
Weight: 1/3 lb.
Height: 1 1/4 in.
The European SB-33 (manufactured in Spain, Greece and Italy) is small, waterproof and difficult to locate. Enemy forces can scatter the mine from helicopters or bury it by hand. Pressure applied to a large plate detonates a high explosive charge. The mine has a shelf-life of 10 years.
SOURCES: Jane's Military Weapons; Brassey's Infantry Weapons of the World
Compiled by James Schwartz; illustrations by Pam Tobey -- The Washington Post