Feature: Research for better protection against landmines and IEDs


A direct hit immobilises faster than anything else in a war zone, making improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, grenade launchers and anti-vehicle, anti-aircraft and or anti-personnel devices devastatingly effective.

UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) maintains more than a million people have died since 1975 from landmine detonations. The UN agency estimates landmines kill around 800 people a month, despite these weapons being outlawed by the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines. The treaty, known as the Ottawa Treaty, has been signed by 162 nations including South Africa.

The two most common landmines are anti-personnel and anti-vehicle. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) researchers specialise in studying the effects of these devices at a research facility, north-east of Pretoria. The Detonics, Ballistics and Explosives laboratory (DBEL) at Paardefontein is where testing and evaluation of vehicles, boots and other protective gear designed to reduce damage done by explosions is undertaken.

DBEL can handle what researchers term “explosive events” of net explosive content from less than 100g up to 50kg outdoors.

Using a combination of high-speed or flash X-ray photography and CSIR-developed test-rigs, such as the lower-leg impactor, researchers can study the effects of a blast event in up to a million frames per second. Crash test dummies (or ATDs – anthropomorphic test devices) are used as surrogates for vehicle occupants and are fitted with data-collecting sensors measuring how the impact or shockwave of the explosion travel through the ATD. Data collected indicate s where forces generated by an explosion do the most damage and where better protection is needed.

Buried blast threats are difficult to identify. Adding to the danger is that the soil they are buried in enhances the blast effects enormously. Having the focused DBEL available in conjunction with specialised research equipment and processes, the CSIR has launched a number of research activities into the effects of soil on both concealing the explosive threat and the parameters making the blast more effective. This leads to better protection as well as better detection.

With the increased risk of civilians and soldiers being exposed to extremist threats in towns and cities, it is paramount to understand the effects of blasts in built-up areas. Emily, a section of a decommissioned submarine hull, was modified to offer the perfect conditions to study explosions in confined spaces.

In addition to larger facilities, DBEL also caters for small arms and automatic grenade launchers, cubicles for the testing of small charges and a fenced area for research into the effects of landmines exposed to prolonged exposure to sunlight or soil.

Ballistic research is a fascinating career and many a young chemical, electrical and mechanical engineer have arrived at DBEL bright-eyed and ready to see some action (and learn a few things in the process). As a state-of-the-art training facility run by seasoned professionals, it offers forces, such as the SA Police Service and other special operational forces, a controlled environment to test and train on how to deal with IED disruption and explosive ordinance disposal, the CSIR said. A custom-built human shelter on site offers a safe haven for clients and visitors from where blasts can be viewed on video screens.

A critical aspect of explosive and ballistic impact research and protection is the ability to scientifically replicate standard military threats as well as the ubiquitous and widely spread IEDs. DBEL has the equipment and methods to safely develop and test new explosive threats and unique IED-type applications, as well as provide a range of validated scientific surrogate threats.

A thorough knowledge and understanding of explosives is critical in developing technologies, systems and doctrines needed to offer effective protection. For example, effective foot protection when stepping on a landmine may provide enough of a shield that the soldier will still survive the blast with a functioning knee joint – vital when learning to walk with a surrogate leg. For this reason, the CSIR has enhanced infrastructure, data and capabilities to offer explosive threat and protection research and development at Paardefontein.