“During the Gulf war of 1991, no fewer than 117,000 landmines were showered over Kuwait and Iraq by American planes. This barely dented the Pentagon’s vast stockpile of 19m. Just under a quarter of the devices scattered in the path of Saddam Hussein’s army were anti-personnel landmines (APLS), the sort that would soon be banned by the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention of 1997, widely known as the Ottawa treaty, a cause famously championed by Princess Diana. It was the last occasion on which America made significant use of APLS.”
The Ottawa treaty has 164 parties, all of which ban the production and use of APLS. Anti-vehicle mines, among others, are still allowed (Remotely activated mines (rather than victim-activated ones) are allowed under the treaty if the person triggering the device has the would-be victim in sight).
America is not among them.
When the treaty was finalised, America declined to join (other holdouts include China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Syria). Although both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did not sign up, Barack Obama did make important compromise by confining the use of APLS to the Korean peninsula, where he pointed to “unique circumstances” – America’s need to defend a long border against a large North Korean army, with everywhere else coming into line with the treaty.
On 31 January 2020, Donald Trump rescinded Obama’s policy. This means that senior commanders outside the Korean peninsula can use APLS once more.
What Purpose Doe Landmines Serve?
Landmines have a number of military uses, for example:
- They are typically used to channel opposing armies away from particular areas and into others.
- A minefield can force an enemy to turn, which exposes their flank and makes them especially vulnerable.
- They can also be used to “canalise” the enemy, channelling attackers into unfavourable terrain, where they may be more exposed to concentrated artillery fire.
However, with the above in mind, the US has made little use of landmines in the past three decades, having cleared its last minefield, at the Guantanamo Naval Base, in Cuba, in 1996-99 and having used a single APL in Afghanistan in 2002 (the purpose is unknown).
Why the Change?
One argument relates to Russia and China.
Some experts suggest that the need to slow and disrupt a possible Russian offensive through eastern Europe is a possible rationale, especially because NATO’s strategy relies on buying time to reinforce its frontline positions.
However, mines degrade over time and Obama’s policy effectively amounted to a blanket ban, ending production. The change enables production to resume and the military to replenish its stock (last done in 1997).
The Problem with Landmines
Landmines can be a headache for friend and foe alike, being indiscriminate.
Landmine casualties have fallen sharply over the years, but at least 2,000 people were killed or wounded by manufactured or improvised APLS in 2018.
Laying a mine can cost a few dollars, but clearing one can require $1,000.
Although landmines can be ‘non-persistent’ either through self-deactivation or or self-destruction (the battery can lose its charge within 30 days or hours for some models), a number can remain active as duds.
For example, in 2002 a report by the Government Accountability Office, an
agency that audits the federal government, noted that during the Gulf war one in 10,000 mines were expected to remain active, which would have produced 12 duds. The actual figure was almost 2,000.
In 2018 Finland – a late and reluctant signatory to Ottawa, given its long border with Russia – said it was developing a new, remote-controlled variety of anti-personnel “bounding” mine that leaps into the air and fires metal bullets downwards.
The Economist. (2020) Ethical Landmines: Watch Your Step. The Economist. 15 February 2020, pp.24-25.