By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Troops on the Afghan front know mine-clearing is risky work. But Taliban minefields are as nothing next to the Yankee ingenuity thatthrough the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agencyis bringing the "self-healing minefield" to the arsenal of freedom.
Utilizing commercial off-the-shelf computer chips and "healing" software, the networked minefield detects rude attempts to clear it, deduces which parts of itself have been removed, and signals its remaining munitions to close the hole using best-fit mathematics. The mines, which can hop, then redistribute themselves, frustrating the enemy and quite probably terrifying him in the process.
The self-healing minefield is said to be ready for jump-off to the army this spring, when a prototype 50-mine plot is scheduled for demonstration.
On the self-healing minefield Web page at DARPAdarpa.mil/ato/programs/SHMadmirers of American techno-savvy are greeted by a Flash animation of the technology in action. The weapon's snazzy emblem is the knight, the chess piece known for its ability to jump over and around a foe.
Contractors for the smart minefield include not only the big national labs like Sandia and Los Alamos, which designed the highly advanced part that smashes tanks and maims people, but also Pentagon vendors Foster-Miller and the secretive Science Applications International Corporation (also known as Violence Applications to some cynics). Alliant Techsystems, a leading American mine manufacturer, is also on board. The company boasts its mines are almost 100 percent reliable.
Foster-Miller, a Boston firm, is shrewdly playing both sides in the smart-minefield game. In addition to sowing the means of destruction, it engineers and sells robots for dealing with still-buried mines and unexploded bombs.
In the war on terror, whom will we sic the self-healing minefield on? Designed to stop tanks, it would seem not to have a mission, since Al Qaeda has no panzer divisions. Theoretically, Saddam is out, too, because his Republican Guard armor will all be blown up near Baghdad by bombers before our infantrymen get to lay explosive traps in front of it.
Another possibility is the border between the Koreas, a place that can always use more mines, to the military way of thinking.
But, heck, even if we don't need the self-healing minefield, just making it keeps people at the vendors from the soup kitchens. So far, reports Human Rights Watch, taxpayers have spent about $30 million on the program.