July 13, 2012
By 1st Lt. Jeffrey Vlietstra, 49th Engineer Detachment, K9
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. Andrew Black moved back toward the Huskey mine clearance vehicle to watch from a safe distance as a team traced the wire of a suspected improvised explosive device back toward the road. His military working dog, Lobo, was held on the end of a leash and the pair was taking a short break after searching the last 500 meters.
Suddenly, enemy forces unleashed AK-47 fire from a position 400 meters away. The team tracing the wire hit the ground and returned fire. Support vehicles joined in engaging the enemy and after five minutes, forced the attackers to withdraw.
The team lost the wire during the engagement and was now scrambling to reacquire it. Black brought Lobo up front to search. Lobo walked out front, nose to the ground, with Black still on the leash close behind. After no more than 70 meters, Lobo stopped. Black called Lobo back, marked the site and called for support. The site was interrogated and 200 pounds of homemade explosive was found buried four feet down.
Black and Lobo are a mine detection dog team belonging to the 49th Engineer Detachment from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Military working dogs are trained to search for, detect and warn of buried mines, explosives and other casualty-producing devices. Handlers are experienced combat engineers who work with and direct the dog during searches.
The 49th Engineer Detachment has maintained a constant presence in Afghanistan since 2004, neutralizing the threat of mines and unexploded ordnance in support of tactical operations. The detachment deploys squads of dog teams. Since their involvement began in Operation Enduring Freedom, mine detection dogs have proven effective, capable of area reduction and delineation of minefields, route clearance, clearance verification, creation of safe lanes through mine fields, and mine field casualty extraction.
Potential handlers go through the six-month mine detection dog course at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and graduate with the additional skill identifier “K9.” Potential handlers must also interview with a kennel master, during which expectations are defined. Once accepted to the school, handlers spend months with their new four-legged partners, training on obedience, explosive detection and minefield clearance, as well as studying canine behavior and behavioral conditioning techniques.
Teams arriving at the 49th Engineer Detachment immediately begin training for deployment. The senior trainer of the detachment, an experienced mine detection dog noncommissioned officer, leads the training, implementing real world scenarios. Teams also conduct training missions with units on post, units conducting pre-deployment training and field training exercises.
Mine detection dog teams are also utilized for unexploded ordnance, or UXO, clearance in support of range control. Prior to deployment, mine detection dog teams must gain certification. Mine detection dog teams travel to Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., where officials certify the teams.
The 49th Engineers deployed to Afghanistan work with the Mine Action Center, performing quality assurance and quality control tasks for the mine clearance of Bagram Airfield, one of the most heavily-mined areas in the world. Since 2004, the mine detection dog teams assisted in the clearance of 6.7 million square meters on Bagram Airfield.
“It’s here where they show their true capability beyond the instrument search limitations,” explained Australian Maj. John Riley, Mine Action Center officer-in-charge. “We would not be able to achieve the quality assurance that we provide without their support.”
The 49th Engineer Detachment also assists the Mine Action Center with quick reaction force missions for vehicles, aircraft or personnel caught in minefields. Mine detection dogs are able to search more rapidly and deploy to areas unreachable by manual and mechanical means so an mine detection dog team is always on standby for these missions. Mine detection dog teams have been called upon many times to clear safe lanes through potentially mined areas to reach downed aircraft or stranded vehicles.
The U.S. military also uses mine detection dog teams for quality assurance and quality control of potential sites during builds and expansions of bases and outposts. Prior to construction, mine detection dog teams deploy to the potential build site to ensure the area is free of explosives prior to construction. This additional request for mine detection dog support required the detachment to deploy another squad. Since 2010, mine detection dog teams have cleared more than 250,000 square meters in preparation for site construction.
In 2010, mine detection dog teams started integrating heavily into route clearance operations due to the constant improvised explosive device, or IED, and mine threat along routes in Afghanistan. Route clearance units continue to see the added value to having a mine dog team. Mine detection dog teams are able to detect the deep-buried explosives mechanical means may not pick up. They are able to traverse routes not accessible to much of the route clearance equipment and they provide a faster means of search for deliberate clearance.
Because of their growing reputation, versatility and effectiveness record, the mine detection dog teams have made an enduring impact on the global war on terrorism and are sought after by engineers, infantry, and special operations to support route clearance and maneuver operations. Mine detection dogs have deployed to all regions of Afghanistan and have proven effective in any environment.
With Operation Enduring Freedom drawing to a close, the job of mine detection dog s will certainly not be over. With more than 20,000 people being killed by land mines annually, mine detection dogs are an asset which could be used around the globe.
Afghanistan is the fourth most heavily-mined country in the world, and while more than 158 countries have signed the Ottawa Agreements banning the production of land mines, there are still nations who continue production. As the United Nations continues to conduct humanitarian de-mining all over the world, the mine detection dog teams could prove to be an even greater resource.