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The $30 million self-healing minefield

Troops on the Afghan front know mine clearing is risky work. But Taliban minefields are as nothing next to the Yankee ingenuity that -- through the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- is 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.

DARPA describes the weapon as if it has been imbued with a life of its own: "The Self-Healing Minefield system is designed to achieve an increased resistance to dismounted and mounted breaching by adding a novel dimension to the minefield. Instead of a static complex obstacle, the Self-Healing Minefield is an intelligent obstacle that responds to an enemy breaching attempt by physically reorganizing ... The Self-Healing Minefield forces the enemy to attack the minefield ..."

The smart and mobile minefield is said to be ready for jump-off to the Army this spring, when a prototype 50-mine plot is scheduled for demonstration. The Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey will aid in putting the finishing touches on it.

On the Self-healing Minefield Web page at DARPA -- darpa.mil/ato/programs/SHM -- admirers of American techno-savvy are greeted by a Flash animation of the technology in action.

It's portrayed as a computer game of sinister nature -- intentionally menacing and not to be missed by taxpayers who are footing its bill. The minefield unit's snazzy emblem is the knight, the chess piece known for its ability to jump over and around a foe.

Indeed, according to the Pentagon, the mines have proven adept at jumping, meeting a design goal of at least 10 meters of lateral movement coupled with a two meter vertical leap.

An even more sci-fi spin-off of some of the technologies used in the self-healing minefield is a Pentagon plan to sow fields of electronic thistles. The thistles -- put down in the same way as a minefield -- would attach surreptitiously to enemy personnel and broadcast a signal which would be used to bring down a surprise artillery barrage upon them.

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. Since North Korea has recently threatened to wage total war against the United States by way of South Korea, Uncle Sam is now probably keenly interested in putting the self-healing minefield in the rogue nation's path as soon as possible.

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, U.S. taxpayers have spent about $30 million on the program.

George Smith is editor of the Crypt Newsletter, an electronic publication on national security and author of The Virus Creation Labs, a book on the origins of malicious software.

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