U.S. Announces New Landmines Policy

Wade Boese

On Feb. 27, the Bush administration announced that it would not join an international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines (APLs), but would limit the types of landmines its military forces may use in the future.

Under the new policy, the United States will work toward ending its use of anti-vehicle and anti-personnel landmines that are not designed to self-destruct and self-deactivate within a specified period of time. Such landmines are referred to as “dumb mines,” while those equipped with self-destruct and self-deactivation features are known as “smart mines.” The current U.S. landmine arsenal is comprised of roughly 15 million smart mines and 2.5 million dumb mines.

Nearly all U.S. smart mines are designed to destroy themselves if they are not set off within a span of four hours to 15 days after being put in place. If the self-destruct mechanism fails to work, the landmine’s battery will go dead within 90 days, effectively disarming the explosive. These features are intended to prevent landmines from maiming or killing civilians months or years after fighting ends.

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Lincoln Bloomfield, who announced the new landmine policy, said that U.S. self-destruct mechanisms are extremely reliable. He declared such devices have never failed to work in more than 60,000 tests.

The new U.S. policy will be implemented in two phases. Between now and 2010, U.S. forces will be prohibited from using dumb mines outside of the Korean Peninsula unless specifically authorized by the president. After 2010, the exception for dumb mines in Korea will expire. U.S. forces will be free to use smart mines on battlefields.

The Bush policy announcement voids two May 1998 pledges by President Bill Clinton. Clinton said the United States would end the use of all APLs—smart and dumb—outside of Korea by 2003 and accede to the Ottawa Convention by 2006 if the Pentagon found suitable APL alternatives by that time.

The Ottawa Convention, which entered into force in March 1999, prohibits the use, stockpiling, transfer, and production of APLs. The treaty also applies to some mixed landmine systems that have both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle devices, but does not rule out the use of pure anti-vehicle landmines. More than 140 states, including all current U.S. NATO allies, are states-parties to the Ottawa Convention.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations Joseph Collins, who also participated in unveiling the new policy, explained that senior military commanders could not support joining the Ottawa Convention because it was impossible to predict whom and where the United States might fight next. He said APLs offer unique capabilities, such as denying an enemy the freedom to maneuver, that other weapon systems could not.

Despite the Pentagon’s reluctance to give up APLs permanently, it did not use such weapons during its conflict with Iraq last year. (See ACT, July/August 2003.)

As part of its new landmine policy, the Bush administration is also seeking to boost funding for global demining and landmine victim assistance to $70 million—a mark nearly double that from a couple years ago. Since 1993 the United States has contributed almost $800 million to such activities, making it the largest funder of landmine action in the world. Bloomfield claimed that such efforts have helped halve landmine casualties from roughly 26,000 annually several years ago down to 10,000.

Bloomfield said that Washington will also encourage other capitals to end the use of dumb mines and pursue an international agreement outlawing their sale and export.