Last week, the Trump administration announced that it would be lifting the 2014 Obama-era restriction on the use of so-called “smart” landmines for the Department of Defense in conflict areas, which had been previously confined to the border of North and South Korea. In statements made by both Pentagon and administration officials, it was said that the new policy would only pertain to the use of anti-personnel landmines in war zones where “exceptional circumstances” required or there were “major contingencies” that demanded said use. There was no given clarification on what these circumstances or contingencies were. The reversal was limited to new age, non-persistent anti-personnel mines that are advertised as being specifically designed to diminish accidental damage and injury to civilians, American troops, and allied forces. These mines are built with internal or on-command self-destruct or self-deactivation mechanisms and are referred to as “smart” rather than “dumb” mines that lack such features. The Trump administration took the policy a step further by reassigning authority to deploy smart landmines from the Secretary of Defense to military commanders directly involved in the conflict in question. However, the commander must notify the Secretary of Defense after they have authorized the use of mines, although it was not said whether an explanation had to be given as to why. This decision cannot be made by any military official under the rank of four-star, and the smart mines must self-destruct or self-deactivate after 30 days have passed.
Smart landmines have been in development by arms producers since at least the Bush-era, with self-destruction and self-deactivation typically being accomplished through an internal clock, a battery that eventually runs out, radio communication, or network sensors. There has been some debate over whether smart mines are actually as smart as they claim to be, however. Some will likely fail despite not being designed to, with the Landmine Protocol of Certain Conventional Weapons allowing for an expected 10% failure rate in smart mines.
The Trump administration defended its reversal of landmine policy by claiming that Obama’s restrictions placed U.S. troops and the military as a whole at a severe disadvantage against its enemies and that Trump himself was unwilling to accept the risk to troop’s lives. The Pentagon’s interim Assistant Secretary for Strategy Vice Mercado said that the policy shift was made due to a calculation of “great power competition,” which points to the belief within the executive branch that China and Russia will either utilize landmines in conflicts, leaving the U.S. at a disadvantage, or that landmines are critical to U.S. resistance to expansionist foreign powers. When asked, Mercado added that he did not anticipate a need to use landmines in war zones similar to Afghanistan and Syria.
Any discussion of landmine use has to begin with the fact that the vast majority of landmine-related casualties are civilians. Mines are not designed to nor are they intelligent enough to differentiate between combatants and civilians. 71% of the global casualties caused by landmines in 2018 were civilians according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. This is actually lower than previous years, with the highest reported in recent times being 87%. According to New Atlas, half of adults who step on land mines die before reaching the hospital, with the number being even higher in children due to their smaller size. Mines themselves are exceptionally expensive to clear, with the average cost being around $2,000 per unit. The cost of clearing all of the world’s currently sown landmines is estimated at $33 billion dollars. The Federation of American Scientists have also pointed out that along with smart mine technology, weapons producers have also rolled out innovative designs that boast little to no metal content to evade detection and increased shrapnel projection, making modern mines even more difficult to detect and far more deadly. Some landmines now incorporate anti-handling devices that make clearing near impossible, with a few particularly horrific examples being specifically designed to appeal to children. According to CARE, someone dies every 15 minutes from a land mine.
The case of using landmines must be weighed against the significant cost to civilians. Although smart landmines may reduce the number of civilian casualties, they do not wholly eliminate them. There is still a 10% allowable failure rate, and even if it does deactivate or self-destruct as designed, within the 30 days that it is live, it can just as easily kill as a civilian as it can a combatant. It is immoral and reprehensible for the U.S. to willing allow the use of devices of war that so disproportionally affect non-combatants. The Trump administration also said that it only reversed the ban on smart mines on the basis of suspicion that “great powers” (which likely refer to China and Russia) would use them or that landmines are needed military resource. First, this is rather hypocritical, as the U.S. has similarly refused to sign international standards that would limit the use of landmines in combat. Second, China and Russia have appeared to challenge the U.S.-led world order through either proxy wars, such as the Syrian Civil War, or slow on-set testing, such as Chinese maneuverings in the South China Sea. Will American military commanders be green lighting the sowing of landmines against proxy forces or only against Chinese and Russian troops? There is an extreme degree of ambiguity and free reign under this policy, and it should worry any who are concerned about executive power, military power, the military-industrial complex, and humanitarian issues. Are landmines so critical to “great power competition” that the U.S. can justify enormous civilian casualties? The U.S. should be leading by example, not given the military a long and rather vague leash to determine where and when it is appropriate to utilize devices that overwhelmingly affect innocent lives.