Land mines are back. Why the U.S. wants them in its arsenal again.

Why We Wrote This

From Princess Diana to the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and an international treaty, attention to land mines helped drastically reduce their use. The Trump administration put land mines back in its quiver, touting usefulness and safety.


Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Inside the Kabul Orthopedic Center of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan on Jan. 10, 2018, a workshop produces prostheses. Civilian casualties from land mines continue despite 164 countries' observance of a 1997 mine ban treaty.

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With an estimated failure rate of 6 in 1 million, “smart” land mines are supposed to deactivate after a period of time. It’s a safety feature that the U.S. Defense Department highlights as one reason land mines should be back on the table.

In late January, the Trump administration rescinded a U.S. prohibition against anti-personnel mines, citing their power as a deterrent.  In addition, the Pentagon can now “turn to our industries to start developing land mines that are even more reliable,” said acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Victorino Mercado.

Human rights groups and some former military officers are among those who are not as convinced that land mines are necessary to bolster American defense. As recently as 2016, an average of 23 people were killed or injured every day by land mines, with 78% of victims being civilians.

For now, the 1997 land mine treaty that prohibits use and development is “surviving and thriving,” says Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch. “164 countries are signatories, and there have been more every year since the treaty was created. They’re not going to tolerate any land mine use, and we’re not going to stop the monitoring that we do.”

After being banned from planting land mines since 2014, the United States military can now use them once again, and Victorino Mercado admits it’s “a very emotional subject” – including within the halls of the Pentagon.      

That said, “we’re not talking about what you see on TV,” added Mr. Mercado, the acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, during a Pentagon briefing last month. The prohibitions against the old tripwire and pressure-plate land mines that have “really wreaked havoc” remain in place, and any newly deployed land mines must have safeguards to protect civilians. “If we weren't comfortable ... that we can mitigate the risk to our forces and ensure that we minimize civilian casualties, then we wouldn't probably put this policy in place.”

It’s that “probably” that has prompted unease among some former U.S. military generals and an outcry from human rights groups. Their concerns hinge in part on just how effective the “safety valves” for modern land mines are. Even granting technological advances, opponents argue that they don’t justify bringing back weapons of war that nonetheless remain indiscriminate. 

As recently as 2016, an average of 23 people were killed or injured every day by land mines, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which notes that the vast majority of victims – 78% – are civilians.

The Obama administration decided that while it wouldn’t sign the 1997 international treaty banning anti-personnel land mines – known as the Ottawa Convention – it would abide by its requirements, except on the Korean Peninsula. Commanders there lobbied to retain the capability to counter the threat of hundreds of thousands of North Korean troops and armored trucks ready to pour over the border.  

The White House statement rescinding the ban authorizes four-star military commanders “in exceptional circumstances” – and with the express approval of the secretary of defense, according to Mr. Mercado – “to employ advanced, non-persistent landmines specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians.”

Modern land mine designs include a deactivation mechanism, which is supposed to kick in after a period of time, between, say, 12 hours and 60 days. The minefields are also “smart,” in that they can “talk to each other and be command-activated, and link into other sensors so that they know when enemy formations are coming,” says retired Col. Mark Cancian, senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who previously worked on land mine issues at the Pentagon. 

Better, but still risky

But reducing the threat does not mean eliminating it, notes a U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines statement released last week by 63 nongovernmental organizations that came together to condemn the policy. “If the self-destruct or self-deactivation mechanisms were to fail, they would remain lethal, and the potential exists for the components to be repurposed into improvised explosive devices,” it says. “While there are still too many casualties annually, we have seen a dramatic decline since the Treaty came into being. To roll back the progress the global community has made would not only be a tragedy but an affront to the dignity of landmine survivors.”

Mr. Cancian argues that cameras and infrared heat signature sensors can help to bring real-time surveillance of minefields. And more generally, he places a high degree of trust in the technology. “I have a great deal of confidence that they’ll do what they say they will,” he says. Pentagon officials say the odds that the mines will fail to self-deactivate as they’ve been programmed to do is 6 in 1 million.

“That’s pretty good. Can we make it better? We can make it better.” said Mr. Mercado, who added that besides the land mines that it already has stockpiled – most of which will expire in 2030 – the Pentagon can now “turn to our industries to start developing land mines that are even more reliable.”

This acknowledgment of room for improvement, however, points to the underlying threat that even the most recent land mine technology poses to civilians, says Mary Wareham, advocacy director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch. “I’ve heard land mines called everything from ‘safe’ to ‘pure’ to ‘area denial systems.’ There’s definitely been efforts by the defense sector to make more precise and accurate weapons. We’ve seen that with the more sophisticated cluster weapons that do not leave many unexploded remnants – but they still leave some.” 

Even when the U.S. military “is out there laying down so-called ‘nonpersistent smart mines’ that will time out after 30 days, there’s still a field of mines out there,” adds Stephen Pomper, senior director for policy at the International Crisis Group. “Are U.S. troops going to be comfortable walking through there? Are people going to send their children to play in them?”

Tactic with tight controls

The Trump administration argues that the greater risk is to U.S. national security. “[R]estrictions imposed on American forces by the Obama Administration’s policy could place [U.S. forces] at a severe disadvantage during a conflict against our adversaries,” according to the White House statement. “The President is unwilling to accept this risk to our troops.” 

Analysts point out, however, that U.S. military leaders outside the Korean Peninsula haven’t been clamoring for land mines. Rather than in their underuse, the danger lies in their overuse, retired Gen. Carter Ham, former head of U.S. Africa Command, tells the Monitor. “I think what we need to do is be very, very careful in the application of land mines. It’s kind of like nuclear weapons – we should never take anything off the table, but we should make sure we have very tight controls.”

The current argument for land mines lies chiefly in their deterrent value – sowing uncertainty is a useful war tactic. They “cause the adversary to have to pause and say, ‘Do I need to clear this field or not?’” Mr. Mercado said. This is particularly true, some analysts argue, against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which cites U.S. jockeying with “great powers” like China and Russia – neither of whom are Ottawa Convention signatories – as a bigger threat than terrorism.

In the event that Moscow decides to invade a neighbor, for example, “a [land mine] capability like this would be very helpful to slow Russians until we bring in NATO,” Mr. Cancian says. Yet in an era of drones, cyberwarfare, and hypersonic weapons, “I guess I’m a little bit skeptical that if, God forbid, the U.S. were to end up in a ground war with Russia,” Mr. Pomper adds, “that the outcome would be determined by the availability of anti-personnel land mines.” 

The idea that “they are a vital tool of warfare – it’s a joke,” argues Ms. Wareham. At the same time, the fact that NATO members, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, are signatories to the Ottawa Convention “creates a huge logistical – interoperability – nightmare,” since these countries do not allow land mines to be stockpiled or transited over their borders, she notes. “Is it worth the trouble? I doubt it.”

For now, the land mine treaty is “surviving and thriving – 164 countries are signatories, and there have been more every year since the treaty was created,” Ms. Wareham adds. “They’re not going to tolerate any land mine use, and we’re not going to stop the monitoring that we do.”

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