The Army Wants Networked Mines That Leap Up To Attack The Tops Of Tanks

Minefields networked together would provide improved capabilities and could help limit risks to friendly troops and innocent civilians.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Army photo


The U.S. Army wants new anti-tank mines that will be able to automatically detect the arrival of enemy vehicles. The complete systems would then fire submunitions into the air that would be able to sense those targets and attack them from above. The top is generally the most vulnerable area on tanks and other armored vehicles. The service also hopes to eventually be able to link these weapons to other types of mines in heavily networked minefields to reduce risks to friendly forces and innocent bystanders.

The U.S. Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey posted a contracting announcement asking for proposals for what it has officially described as "Terrain Shaping Obstacle (TSO) Top Attack prototype" on Apr. 1, 2021. The "top attack" system is envisioned as one part, or Increment 1, of a three-part Common Anti-Vehicle Munition (CAVM) system. The other two planned components are an advanced "bottom attack" mine (Increment 2) and a network architecture (Increment 3) that will link minefields with both types together, as well as to actual humans, via a Remote Control Station (RCS) that can be installed like an app on tablet-like hand-held tactical computers.

US Army troops carry XM204 Wide Area Munition systems during a test. The Army says it wants the new CAVM system to be more effective than the XM204., US Army

"The top attack system is envisioned to consist of the Common Anti-Vehicle Munition (CAVM) top attack munition, the top attack dispenser launcher module (DLM), the Remote Control Station (RCS), and an obstacle planning capability," the Army's contracting notice explains. "Obstacle planning" here referring to the process of figuring out the exact desired layout of minefields. 

The top attack mines themselves need to be able to effectively engage targets up to 164 feet away. "Emplaced systems shall be capable of operating in a standby mode for up to six months with the ability to transition to a pre-armed mode for 30 days," the contracting announcement says.

As for the RCS, the Army wants it to be able to oversee up to 12 individual minefields, each covering an area of around 400,000 square feet, on average. The service says the individual DLMs and the RCSs should connect via two-way line-of-sight datalinks with ranges up to around 3.1 miles. 

A two-way connection allows the minefields to communicate their 'health,' such as whether individual mines have engaged targets or have somehow become non-functional, to a human operator. This would also allow soldiers to switch minefields on and off at will, allowing friendly forces to pass through or disabling them should innocent bystanders suddenly enter the area. "A device shall display authoritative safety information with a 1 in 1 million probability of false display of safe to the RCS operator," according to the contracting notice.

The Army does not specify how the top attack mine would function, but this would not be the first such system the service has acquired. "The CAVM top attack munition shall have improved lethality over previous generations of top attack munitions (M93 Hornet and XM204)," the service makes clear.

The M93 Hornet, also known as the Wide Area Munition (WAM) entered service in the early 1990s. It used seismic and acoustic sensors to spot targets. After that, the M93 would fire a submunition with an infrared sensor, which would then zero in on that target. 

An M93 mine as it looks when it is emplaced., via FAS

A proximity sensor would then detonate the submunition above the vehicle in question. Its warhead was designed in a way wherein the explosive force would create a fast-flying 450-gram tantalum armor-piercing slug, as well as additional shrapnel for added effect, including against any nearby personnel.

The Army had plans to integrate the M93 into various mine-dispensing systems, such as Volcano, which can be mounted on trucks or helicopters to rapidly emplace minefields across wide areas. However, this did not come to pass, and the Hornet has remained primarily a hand-emplaced system, making it hard to employ quickly on a large scale.

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Readily available details about the XM204 are more limited, but it is described as a "munition system" that launches submunitions from a manually-emplaced launcher on the ground. It is also referred to as a "Wide Area Munition," suggesting that it could simply be a ground-based dispenser for use with the existing M93 or a derivative thereof.

It's also interesting to note that the Army is now starting to look for an apparent replacement for both the M93 and the XM204, despite the latter system only having gone through key System Engineering Review processes last year. The outcome of those reviews is unclear, but they were also delayed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

US Army soldiers carry an XM204 system., US Army

In addition, it's worth mentioning that the form and function of the actual mines in these systems, as well as the planned future CAVM system, is similar in many respects to the BLU-108/B Sensor Fuzed Munition (SFM), which you can read about in more detail in this past story. Components of SFM were derived from an earlier landmine project known as the Extended Range Anti-Armor Mine, or ERAM. The U.S. Air Force continues to field cluster munitions, also known as Sensor Fuzed Weapons (SFW), loaded with SFM submunitions. 

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This is also not the first time the Army has explored networked 'smart' minefields with an eye toward improving reliability and safety, as well as limiting the potential for unexploded mines to turn into hazards for civilian populations long after a conflict had ended. The Gator Landmine Replacement Program, which the service initiated in 2016, was one such effort. Gator is a family of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines designed to scattered across large areas in various ways, including via the ground-based Volcano and air-dropped cluster munitions.

"The Army’s end goal is to create a munition that can be detonated remotely by a soldier — a design feature that in theory could reduce the risks that land mines pose to civilians. It could also keep the United States aligned with — but still not signatory to — an international treaty signed by more than 160 countries that bans the use of antipersonnel mines, but does not prohibit mines designed to destroy vehicles like tanks and armored personnel carriers," according to a 2018 New York Times story. "Since 2016, the Army has spent $106 million on this initiative, called the Gator Landmine Replacement Program, yet it is still in its early stages."

In 2018, the Army was already talking about a new family of mines that included common top and bottom attack types, networked together and dispensed using various systems. The CAVM system appears to be a direct outgrowth of these efforts and it is clear from the contracting notice that the goal is to be able to disperse these mines in multiple different ways.

A 2018 US Army briefing slide describing a new family of mines that could be emplaced in various ways., US Army

"To enable future operational needs, the top attack Common Anti-Vehicle Munition (CAVM) design should consider compatibility with delivery platforms such as 155mm tube artillery, developmental Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF), robotic ground vehicle platforms, current and future vertical lift (FVL) aircraft, unmanned aerial aircraft, and fixed wing aircraft," the contracting notice says. LRPF is a term that covers various new longer-range weapons now in development for the Army, including the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) 155mm self-propelled howitzer and the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM).

While these emplacement methods would allow US forces to rapidly seed minefields across broader areas, including behind enemy lines to complicate an opponent's movements, it's not clear how this would work with the stated networking plans. Beyond-line-of-sight datalinks would be required, which have been under discussion a component of the CAVM system in the past, to connect human operators to those minefields.

A US Army briefing slide showing the various components of a notional future networked CAVM minefield that includes satellite-enabled beyond-line-of-sight datalinks., US Army

The Army, as well as the U.S. military as a whole, has focused heavily on plans to incorporate some kind of 'man-in-the-loop' control scheme into future landmine designs as a counter to criticism about its continued use of these kinds of weapons. Opponents of landmine use point primarily to the dangers these weapons, especially if emplaced indiscriminately, can present to civilians well after a conflict has come to an end.

The United States is notably not a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty, which came into force in 1999 and is focused on the elimination of anti-personnel mines, specifically. There are 164 signatories to that deal to date. It is worth noting that this agreement does not cover anti-tank mines, or dual-purpose anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, as well as any mines that can be employed in a mode where they are remotely triggered, such as the M18A1 Claymore.

President Barack Obama had instituted restrictions that prohibited any use of anti-personnel mines outside of the Korean Peninsula, where minefields are a key component of defenses along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. President Donald Trump's administration had relaxed those rules in January 2020. Just today, the Pentagon confirmed that, at least so far, neither President Joe Biden nor his Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, had made any changes to America's landmine policies.

"Landmines, including anti-personnel mines, remain a vital tool in conventional warfare that the United States military cannot responsibly forgo, particularly when faced with overwhelming enemy forces in the early stages of combat," Mike Howard, a Pentagon spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Apr. 6, 2021. "Withholding a capability that would give our ground forces the ability to deny terrain temporary and therefore shape an enemy's movement o our benefit irresponsibly risks American lives."

The New York Times

subsequently reported that the Pentagon clarified that U.S. landmine policy is now again under review. Again, however, it important to stress that the Obama-era restrictions and the changes made under Trump only apply to anti-personnel mines and have had no impact on the use of anti-tank types, such as the Army's planned future CAVM system. 

There has also been a general resurgence since the end of the Obama years in new anti-armor capabilities across the U.S. military. This was prompted in no small part due to new concerns about a potential conflict with Russia following the Kremlin's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014. This region has recently reemerged as a potential flashpoint amid a worrisome Russian troop buildup, which you can read about more here.

The Russian Army already fields a diverse array of tanks and other armored vehicles and has been working to upgrade and expand those fleets. Armored vehicle developments in China have also become a point of concern for the U.S. military in recent years as it works to better prepare itself for a potential large-scale conflict in the Pacific region.

All told, even if President Biden does end up bringing back Obama's landmine policies, the Army looks set to push ahead with the development of new, advanced anti-tank mines, and the networks and other subsystems to go with them, to help counter enemy armored forces during future conflicts.

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