US Expected to Loosen Restrictions on Land Mines — Smart Ones, Anyway

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Gabriel T. Green, a platoon sergeant with 9th assists Thai soldiers with a metal detector during survey training event at the Charumanee Training Field in Ratchaburi, Kingdom of Thailand, Dec. 18, 2018.

Lance Cpl. Adam Montera / US MARINE CORPS

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U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Gabriel T. Green, a platoon sergeant with 9th assists Thai soldiers with a metal detector during survey training event at the Charumanee Training Field in Ratchaburi, Kingdom of Thailand, Dec. 18, 2018.

The new rule could pave the way for the Army to deploy networked, sensor-packed remote-controllable mines far from the Korean peninsula.

Can smarter, sensor-infused land mines protect U.S. forces without hurting civilians? That’s the hope behind a policy shift in the U.S. land mine policy set to be announced on Friday. 

Effectively rescinding a 2014 rule that limited the use of land mines to the Korean peninsula, the new policy will allow combatant commanders to authorize the use of land mines “in a given operational context, such as in certain major combat operations involving U.S. military forces,” according to a State Department cable obtained by Defense One. 

But the new rule maintains the ban on old-style mines that lack “self-destruct and self-activate”  functions. (Anti-personnel mines are most commonly activated when someone steps on them, but activation isn’t necessarily the same thing as destruction.) That suggests that improvements in technology are at least partially responsible for the change.

Alex Ward of Vox first reported the upcoming change. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters, “There will be a change coming out. I’m not going to comment on what it is.” 

Since 2016, the U.S. Army has been working on a new class of wirelessly networked landmines. The Gator Landmine Replacement program seeks to replace mines that explode indiscriminately when people come near. Such weapons are banned by 160 countries under the 30-year-old Ottawa Treaty — formally, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. The United States is among the few dozen countries that have not signed the agreement.

The Gator program aims to deploy a “series of mines connected by a wireless network, far removed from American troops, who would monitor sensors attached to the weapons,” the New York Times wrote in 2018. When a vehicle approaches, the sensors would alert the operator, who would then decide whether to detonate the mine — based on whether the approaching vehicle posed a threat.”

The Defense Department has been seeking a new command-and-control architecture for landmines. The hope is to allow operators to create a “dynamic munition field that could feed sensor information back to Army mission command to ascertain vehicle movement in the minefield and to allow a remotely initiated lethal response or safe passage,” according to a January 2019 release from the Army Acquisition Support Center, which said the service was accelerating the Gator program.  So-called command-detonated mines are compliant with the Ottawa Treaty, but by lifting restrictions, the U.S. would have more room to deploy mines that autonomously detect and decipher specific types of threats or that can activate even when network communication is not available, but still capable of self-activation and destruction, thus more controllable than dumb mines. 

An illustration of a next-generation networked mine concept from the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center,

The U.S. State Department’s Humanitarian Demining Program has spent more than $3.6 billion since 1993 to remove mines in more than 100 countries. More than 20,000 people are killed or maimed by land mines every year, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. 

In a Thursday statement, Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said, “The resumption of the use of anti-personnel landmines and continued stockpiling and production of these indiscriminate weapons is militarily unnecessary and dangerous…If the Trump administration seeks to reverse the Obama-era policy on anti-personnel mines, Congress should respond by imposing a ban on the deployment of any type of anti-personnel landmine in new theaters of operation.”

Kevin Baron contributed to this report.

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