Mine clearance is a growth industry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- For generations South Africans have made money digging in the ground, taking out the diamonds and gold put there by nature. Now there's money to be made digging out deadly instruments of destruction put there by man.

Land mine clearance is one of the growth industries of Africa, which has perhaps 25 million of the world's 100 million mines buried beneath its troubled soil.

As many as 10 million of them lie in Angola, outnumbering the country's 9 million people.

So along comes the Chubby, a range of vehicles designed for treacherous terrain -- in fact, the only vehicles designed specifically for mine removal and detection.

In a factory east of Johannesburg, Dorbyl Ltd., which is Chubby's creator and manufacturer, two Chubbies are being readied for the government of Uganda.

Jappie Van Vuuren, Chubby's marketing manager, expresses confidence that a full-scale assembly line will soon be busy filling additional orders, once the world sees what the vehicles can do and now that the machine has passed tests conducted to NATO specifications by the French.

When you buy a Chubby, you get six vehicles for about $1 million. They are intended for work on roads -- not in agricultural fields, where anti-personnel mines have claimed countless limbs.

The first vehicle of the convoy, the mine detector, looks to be an oddly styled road grader. It is supposed to be light enough to drive over almost any sort of road mine without detonating it.

Two panels that ride just above a surface send electronic signals into the road. The driver, in an armored cockpit, listens through earphones for a "ping" announcing the presence of a mine.

The vehicle can be stopped and a support crew called up to remove or detonate the explosive.

Or the second set of Chubby vehicles following along can be called into action. This second set are designed to find the mines the first vehicle missed.

First there's a heavier version of the detection vehicle, towing two even heavier trailers. With their axles offset to ensure that the entire road surface is covered, the vehicles detonate any mines on the road, doing little damage to themselves.

That's the theory.

To account for less-than-perfect performance, the wheel assemblies, designed to take the brunt of exploding mines, are separate modules that can be replaced fairly quickly.

"In France, it took about an hour," Mr. Van Vuuren said. "You just pop it off and pop another one on."

A complete set of spares, towed along as two additional vehicles, is included in the purchase price.

Mr. Van Vuuren said the Chubby's big advantage over the usual method of clearing mines from roads -- a tank with a rotating

brush of chains in front -- is speed.

"This can operate at 35 kilometers per hour," he said. "The tank only goes one or two kilometers an hour. So you can cover a lot more ground in a day.

"We see this as a peace vehicle. We want to export peace to our neighbors.

"It is one thing to say that you've won your freedom, but you are not really free if you are afraid to leave your home, to drive down the road, to take a bicycle to market because there might be mines on the road."

There is unacknowledged irony: This peace vehicle was developed for war, a war South Africa helped fight against troops in Angola.

Dorbyl began working on Chubby 18 years ago when South African troops were encountering mined roads as they headed through northern Namibia into Angola, in support of the rebel army UNITA, the force blamed for most of the mines.

Several South African companies employing former soldiers have received contracts from the United Nations to clear mines from roads in both Angola and Mozambique.

Since the apartheid South African government fought in both of those countries, some of the mines that will be found were placed, or at least paid for, by South Africa.

According to Mr. Van Vuuren, these mine-removal companies are looking into Chubby.

He has a trip planned to the United States to try to interest the RTC Pentagon. And France, he says, seems to be on the verge of placing an order.

Being able to travel mine-free roads would be of immense value to Angola and Mozambique, an essential step in getting their economies functioning.

With roads cleared of mines, the United Nations could deliver food and other aid by truck convoy instead of expensive airlifts.

"The United Nations is definitely interested in this vehicle," Mr. Van Vuuren said. "But they don't have any money. They want all their equipment donated."

Which is not the point of Chubby at all.

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