America's stubborn anti-personnel landmine policy needs fundamental revision; unfortunately, however, the Obama administration's recent policy statement is business as usual.
The United States has not joined the more than 160 other countries, including all our NATO allies, as a party to the Ottawa Convention, which entered into force in 1999. The Convention prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel land mines, and provides for their elimination.
Anti-personnel land mines are inherently indiscriminate weapons, activated by whoever comes into contact with them. They have killed or maimed thousands of innocent civilians, and continue to do so.
At the conclusion of the Ottawa Convention review conference on June 28, the U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique, Douglas M. Griffiths, issued a statement announcing that the United States would no longer produce or otherwise acquire anti-personnel land mines or replace those that expire.
But with a stockpile estimated at between 10 and 13 million landmines, we already had suspended the procurement of new mines beginning in 1997. Moreover, with proper maintenance, existing mines are not likely to expire.
The new U.S. policy statement also asserted that the U.S. is continuing experimental work, presumably begun in 1998, "to ascertain how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of anti-personnel mines," and to "ultimately allow us to accede to the [Ottawa] convention." The risks appear minimal, however, since we have not found it necessary to employ mines since the first Gulf War in 1991.
In fact, it appears that we learned during the first Gulf War that employment of our high tech land mines can be counter-productive. For example, they impeded the maneuverability of our attacking units, slowed their operational tempo and inflicted casualties on our own troops. A message from XVIII Corps to all its units warned that "extreme caution must be exercised in moving/maneuvering" through areas in which air strikes had delivered mines. In its after-action report, the 1st Infantry Division expressed "grave concern about minefields created by U.S. weapons" and the friendly casualties they produced.
A seemingly more persuasive case can be made for the use of land mines in defensive operations. The defense of South Korea is often pointed out as a prime example. Yet the mines emplaced along and near the demilitarized zone have long since been turned over to the South Korean armed forces. This means these Korean mines don't prevent the U.S. from joining the treaty.
The mission of the U.S. ground forces in the event of a North Korean attack is to serve as a mobile reserve to blunt penetrations of the demilitarized zone by enemy forces, requiring counter-attacks through the same mine fields emplaced for defensive purposes. That probably is why the late Lt. General Jim Hollingsworth, who designed the Korean war plan, strongly advocated banning the use of land mines.
In claiming that retention of anti-personnel land mines is necessary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently stated that they may be needed in some situations to prevent U.S. troops from being over-run. Yet in the long period of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, when we had hundreds of semi-static vulnerable bases, many lightly manned, we did not find it necessary to deploy mines to defend them.
Representative "Buck" McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, lost no time in condemning the new U.S. policy statement as an "expensive solution" that is "bad for the security of our men and women in uniform."
The Congressman is probably unaware of the military advantages to the United States ground forces, with our superior technical capabilities, of general compliance with the Ottawa Convention, which U.S. adherence would facilitate, and the conclusion of many observers such as the former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Alfred Gray, that "we kill more Americans with our own mines than anyone else."
While anti-personnel mines may be marginally useful in rare combat situations, they are by no means essential. It is past time for the United States to agree to a ban on the use of these indiscriminate weapons and to accede to the Ottawa Convention. The U.S. statement does not advance that outcome.