In the late 1990s, the Flensburger Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft (FFG, Eng: Flensburg Vehicle Manufacturing Company) unveiled a powerful new demining vehicle. It was designed to be capable of clearing large areas of ground quicker than existing vehicles.
This machine was called the Minenräumer (Eng: Mine Clearer) ‘Minebreaker 2000/2’ and was based on the heavily modified chassis of the old German Main Battle Tank (MBT), the Leopard 1. For the entirety of its existence, the mine clearer has been painted completely in bright red paint, with the exception of its bright blue control cab.
The big red Minebreaker is one of the largest and most powerful mine-clearing vehicles to have ever existed. Civilian demining organizations such as German Welt-Entminungs-Hilfe (Eng: German World Demining Aid) began using the vehicle in the late-1990s, but the machine also caught the eye of the world’s militaries. In September 2000, the South Korean Army became the first military to procure the vehicle, for the purpose of demining the inner-Korean border should the need arise. In 2002, the German Army purchased the machine seeing a need for a demining vehicle capable of clearing a larger area than the in-service Keiler Mine Flail. It had a very short service life with the German Army, being retired in 2014. It did, however, see minor service in Afghanistan around Kabul International Airport.
The Big Red Beast
By the late-1990s, the Leopard 1 had long fallen out of service with the German Army. As such, it was the perfect candidate for the butchery that would take place converting it into the monstrous Minebreaker.
The Minebreaker was designed by Jorg Kamper, though unfortunately, not much is known about the man. The main feature of his Minenräumer is the large, combine harvester like plow at the front of the vehicle. The plow takes the form of a large tilling drum covered in long metal teeth. The plow is supported by giant arms that extend back to the center of the hull. In the middle of the arms is the command position, enclosed within a ballistically-protected, bright blue (or sometimes white) cabin. Behind the cab, protruding from the engine deck, are two, truck-like exhaust pipes or ‘smokestacks’. Finally, at the very rear of the hull, hanging over the back of the engine deck is a large box housing the vehicle’s giant air ventilation system.
The Leopard’s chassis is barely recognizable as the hull of this vehicle. The only recognizable features are the vestigial exhaust vents on the sides on the engine deck, just above the sprocket wheels, and the running gear. The running gear did see a small addition in the form of a protective disc attached to the sprocket wheel. Exactly what purpose this disc has, however, is unknown.
The engine is one of the few unchanged parts of the Leopard 1’s anatomy. It remains the same 10-cylinder, 37.4-litre multi-fuel MTU MB 838 CaM 500 engine. This engine produces 819 horsepower and propelled the 40-tonne Leopard 1 to 65 km/h (40 mph). The Minebreaker is 9 tonnes heavier than the Leopard, weighing in at 49 tonnes. The Minebreaker travels at a fraction of the speed of the Leopard 1, though, with a top speed of just 4 km/h. This is because the plow, and the vehicle itself, is driven hydraulically via a multi-pump transfer drive. In the case of mine clearing operations, this is not a bad thing. It allows every inch of ground to be cleared, forming as safe an area as possible. This hydrostatic drive allows the Minebreaker to travel as slow as 1 meter-per-minute.
Mine Clearing Equipment
The mine plow of the Minebreaker takes the form of a large tilling drum. The drum is covered in around 50, long chisel-like teeth. As the vehicle’s designer once explained: “The tilling drum is fitted with heavy-duty tungsten carbide teeth. If a mine blows up these teeth are the only piece damaged, but [they] are cheap and can be exchanged within minutes…”. Teeth included, the drum is 1.8 meters in diameter and 3.69 meters wide. The drum is covered in a large hood to stop debris and undetonated mines hitting the vehicle.
The tilling drum is carried by a large frame consisting of two huge arms on the left and right of the drum, and a crossbar that spans the gap between the two. Attached to the bar are two hydraulic rams that raise and lower the tiller as required. The arms are attached to pivot joints roughly halfway along the length of the hull, just above the fourth road wheel. The drum was rotated via chains housed inside the supporting arms. On the inner side of the arm, near the ‘elbow’, was a small motor, powered by the hydraulic drive. This could rotate the drum in both a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction. Anticlockwise is often the preferred direction as it lifts mines out of the ground. Clockwise rotation can result in pushing the mine further into the ground. Unfortunately, the rotational speed of the drum is currently unknown.
Thanks to the hydraulic drive, the vehicle can clear mines at various speeds and various soil types. In light soil, the vehicle clears at 12-20 m/min, 5-12 m/min in medium soil, and 2-5 m/min in heavy soil. This was estimated as being 20 to 40 times faster than a squad of 20 experienced deminers. The vehicle has an approximate clearing rate of 15,000 mᒾ – 20,000 mᒾ (1.5 – 2 Hectares) per day. Clearance depth of the tilling drum is 300 – 500 mm. Due to the size and limited flexibility of the tilling drum, the vehicle can only clear reliably on predominantly flat ground. Ground sloped over 35 degrees cannot be cleared by this vehicle.
The Minebreaker is driven and controlled by a single operator, located in a small bright blue cab placed in the middle of the vehicle. The cab was positioned on a large metal plate that covered the empty, 198 cm diameter turret ring. The cab is ballistically protected by 20 mm steel armor and 70 mm of layered bulletproof glass on the four windows. There is a window on the front of the cab (with a wiper blade), one on each side, and one at the rear built into the armored door used to gain entrance to the cab.
The Minebreaker is incredibly easy to control. There are two joysticks attacked to control units on the left and right side of the driver’s seat. One stick is used to drive the vehicle, the other operates the tilling rig. The ease of control means anyone with basic knowledge and qualifications in operating foundry or construction equipment can easily, and quickly, be trained to operate the Minebreaker. The Operator’s seat is mounted above shock-absorbers. These shock-absorbers cushion the Operator from the force of an exploding mine. For example, the G-force produced by the detonation of a 7kg explosive is reduced to just 2 Gs in the cab. This is comparable to a car mounting a curb at walking speed. The seat also rotates to allow the Operator to egress the cab through the armored door.
One other large, eye-catching feature of the Minebreaker is the air filter assembly at the rear of the vehicle. The Minebreaker is a large and powerful mine clearing vehicle, and as such, produces a lot of dust and debris when its tilling drum is at full speed cutting into terrain. The powerful MTU (Motoren und Turbinen Union meaning, Eng: Motor and Turbine Union) engine is air-cooled, and of course, requires oxygen for the combustion process. To provide the cleanest possible air in a cloud of dust, the air filters were made truly large. The whole assembly is housed inside a large box overhanging the rear of the vehicle, supported by welded framework. Clean air is pumped into the engine bay directly through the engine deck. A large ‘hump’ of metal plating protects the connection between the front of the filter box and engine deck. The exact model of the filter, or how it operates, is unfortunately unknown at this time.
To accommodate the filtration system, the exhaust gasses had to be diverted from the usual grills on the left and right of the hull, at the rear. For this, new exhaust pipes were installed just in front of these grills. The pipes culminated in large, semi-truck-like smokestacks just over a meter high, complete with perforated, heat sinking cowling.
Climbing aboard the Minebreaker is easy. Just in front of the left smokestack is a ladder. When the operator is aboard, it is then folded up and locked in place to stop it getting tangled up with the running gear. There is also a folding ladder attached to the left rear corner of the air filter.
The Minebreaker is not intended for use in active combat areas and as such, it is mostly unarmored. Also, as a slow moving vehicle, it is an easy target for an aggressor tank or anti-tank weapon. The vehicle’s protective cab is only meant to protect the vehicle from small arms fire and the detonation of mines. Although the Leopard 1 was never a heavily armored vehicle, with a maximum armor thickness of 70 mm, it still grants a good level of protection for the Operator and the internal mechanics.
Another feature of the Minebreaker is that – according to both the designer, Jorg Kamper, and the manufacturer, FFG – the Minebreaker is a modular system. Kamper as been recorded as saying “…it is [currently] mounted on a Leopard 1 chassis, but [it] is a modular system and can fit almost [any other tracked chassis] such as the T-55, T-72, M48, M60…”. There is nothing to say that this is not true, but, for now at least, the only built and used Minebreakers have been Leopard 1 based.
SFOR: Bosnia and Herzegovina
The first uses of the Minebreaker were at the hands of private, non-military demining organizations. As already stated, this included German Welt-Entminungs-Hilfe. In 1999, this organization aided NATO’s ‘Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR)’ in the removal of mines from Vidovice, Kopanice and Jenjic. These were small towns on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s northeastern border with Croatia. These towns were in the Posavina Corridor, in the Sava River valley, some of the most hotly contested ground in the Bosnian War of 1992 – 1995. As such, the ground was heavily saturated with minefields.
For three years, the Minebreaker was used here in clearing operations. The Minebreaker was operated by personnel from Croatia’s 4th Guards Brigade ‘The Spiders’. The 4th Guards Bde. was under the supervision of the United States 1st Engineer Battalion, which was in the country as part of Task Force ‘Catamount’.
When it entered service with the German Army, the Teutonic Cross was added to the vehicle, on the tiller arms. The first use of the Minebreaker by the German Army came in September 2002, in Afghanistan. The Minebreaker was deployed with the German contingent of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, also known as ‘ISAF’. While part of this force, the ‘ISAF’ logo was applied to the tiller arms. The Minebreaker proved to be somewhat of a logistical headache as no military aircraft was capable of carrying the vehicle to Afghanistan. The Ukrainian based Antonov Airlines were contracted to transport the Minebreaker, using the world’s largest cargo aircraft, the Antonov An-225 Mriya.
The Minebreaker was tasked with clearing mines from the area around Kabul International Airport. Similar missions took place in this area, undertaken by various nation’s armies. The US Army, for instance, deployed the remote-controllable M1 Panther II for this task. The Minebreaker was in operation in Afghanistan for two years, after which it was sent back to Germany where it was used as a training vehicle.
The Minebreaker was retired from German military service in 2014. It is unknown whether South Korea’s machine is still operational. The Minebreaker is still listed as being available to purchase from Flensburger Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft (FFG), however.
It is not known whether there are any other Minebreakers currently in service in the world, or whether they have been based on other vehicles. For now, at least, the only known Minebreakers remain Leopard 1 based. It also still one of the most powerful mine clearing vehicles to have ever existed.
The Flensburger Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft (FFG) Minenräumer ‘Minebreaker 2000/2’. The hull of the Leopard 1 is barely recogniseable under all of the added components and large mineclearing tiller drum assembly. This illustration was produced by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||10.94 x 4.51 x 3.31 meters|
|Total weight, battle ready||49 tonnes|
|Propulsion||MTU MB 838 CaM 500 engine, 819hp|
|Suspension||Independent torsion bars|
|Speed (road)||1 m/min – 4 km/h (2.4 mph)|
|Equipment||1.8 x 3.69 meter Mine Clearing Tilling Drum|
|Armor||Max 70 mm on the hull, 70mm bulletproof gl.|
|Production||At least 3|
Ralph Zwilling, Minenräumfahrzeuge: Mine-clearing Vehicles from the Keiler to the German Route Clearance System, Tankograd Publishing
Pionier News, The German Corps of Engineers Magazine, Edition No. 5, December 2002. Page 28-29, an article by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Sponfeldner. (PDF)
Mechanical Demining Equipment Catalogue 2008 (PDF)
Mechanical Demining Equipment Catalogue 2010 ( PDF)