Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

The Washington Post

Land Mines, Aging Missiles Pose Threat - Equipment Left Over From Soviet War Could Endanger U.S. Troops in Afghanistan 
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2001; Page A15 

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia still possesses dozens of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles left from the 1979-1989 war against the Soviet Union, but Pentagon officials and other defense experts say an estimated 10 million land mines buried during the Soviet occupation would pose an even greater threat to U.S. forces.

"They are going to be a tremendous worry," far more than the Stingers, said retired Marine colonel Edward Badolato, who helped manage the clearance of mines and other explosives from Kuwait after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The United States provided about 1,000 Stingers to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and an estimated 100 to 200 are believed to remain in Afghanistan. The Stinger, a shoulder-fired guided anti-aircraft missile, can hit aircraft flying as high as 10,000 feet with a heat-seeking high-explosive warhead.

Badolato said antipersonnel mines are widely distributed across Afghanistan. In addition, he said, lightly armored U.S. Special Forces and other infantry units the Defense Department may use to conduct raids against terrorists in Afghanistan are particularly vulnerable to the shrapnel blasted by exploding mines.

Afghanistan is the most heavily mined area of the world, according to reports by the Red Cross and the U.S. military. "Anytime you have mines, it's worrisome," said retired lieutenant general R.L. "Sam" Wetzel, a former commandant of the Army's infantry school. "I remember carrying five dead guys out of a minefield in Korea."

A study published by the Army this year noted that 16 United Nations employees have been killed and an additional 20 injured while involved in tightly controlled mine-clearing work in Afghanistan. Those workers removed a total of 13,542 antipersonnel mines and 636 antitank mines last year, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

The damage is even worse in wartime: About one-third of the 68,000 casualties suffered by the Red Army in Afghanistan during its decade of fighting there were inflicted by various kinds of mines, according to a 1998 study in the U.S. Army's journal on military medicine.

With almost all U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War now retired, the Army lacks many medical specialists seasoned in handling mine injuries, that 1988 study also observed. The military has studied mines closely in recent years because of their widespread presence in the Balkans, where the U.S. military has been on the ground since 1995. But mainly because of extensive "mine awareness" training required of all U.S. soldiers before deploying that includes practice patrols, American servicemen have suffered surprisingly few mine casualties.

Those casualties can be fearsome. The public image of mines is that they blow off toes or feet, but the injuries inflicted can be far more extensive.

Two-thirds of the Soviet troops wounded by mines in Afghanistan needed blood transfusions totaling two or more liters of blood, an unusually large amount, the Army medical study noted. Also, nearly half suffered some heart injury from the mine's blast, and smaller numbers sustained damage to the lungs and brain.

But one general at the Pentagon argued that the mines would present less of a threat to American forces because they would be operating differently than the Red Army did. "The Soviets were trying to secure terrain, patrol and assault places," he said. "We're going to be going in to do direct action -- vertical insertion, in and out." "Direct action" is military jargon for small, quick raids either to assassinate or to apprehend a small number of adversaries.

Even so, the mines are having an effect on U.S. planning. In addition to the physical damage they can do, the Army study noted, mines also can have a psychological impact on soldiers, undercutting their confidence and slowing the movement of units to a crawl. "Land mines can cause you to be very careful about how you go into a place and deal with it," said retired Army lieutenant general Thomas Burnette, a career light infantryman.

By contrast, experts said the threat presented by the Stinger probably has been overestimated. "They achieved a kind of mythological reputation in Afghanistan because the first five that were fired brought down Soviet aircraft," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA official who was involved in the 1986 decision to provide the Stingers to the Afghans fighting the Soviets.

But, he said, "They have short lifespans in their battery pack, so they're kind of obsolete."

After the war ended, in 1989, the U.S. started a program to buy back unused Stingers. It eventually purchased roughly 200 of the surplus weapons for prices estimated to vary from $50,000 to $100,000 apiece, according to people familiar with that program.

But 100 to 200 Stingers are believed to remain in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has a variety of countermeasures available to lessen the threat from the missiles, experts said. "You can call in suppressive fire, if you have intelligence on who has it," noted Badolato. In addition, said John Pike, an independent defense consultant, U.S. aircraft can put out decoys to lead the incoming missile astray. The missiles also contain "friend or foe" computer chips that are supposed to prevent them from being fired successfully at U.S.-made aircraft. However, those chips can be removed.

What's more, the Stingers in Afghanistan are at least 13 years old, said another former CIA official. "That's a lot of time to be sitting under someone's bunk," he said.

Yet there is one worrisome aspect to the aging, relatively unsophisticated missile: When some of the Stingers that were returned to the U.S. were taken to military test ranges and fired, every single one worked. "That's what makes everyone so nervous," said one former CIA officer involved in the Stinger program.

Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report. 

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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