If there must be land mines, make them comply with the law

September 21, 2006|By Leon V. Sigal | Leon V. Sigal,OP-ED COMMENTARY

NEW YORK -- When the global ban on antipersonnel land mines was concluded in 1997, President Clinton did not sign it, but committed the United States to do so this year if the Pentagon could develop alternatives to comply with the treaty in the meantime.

It eventually came up with the Spider, designed to be detonated by command, which made it lawful to deploy under the treaty. Like most modern U.S. mines, the Spider combines anti-tank mines with anti-personnel mines to protect them from tampering. Unlike most others, it is not delivered by air or artillery, but is placed in the ground by hand. If touched by enemy troops or tanks, its spidery tripwires alert U.S. troops monitoring the mines at a distance, who can then send an electronic signal to set them off.

That did not satisfy the Pentagon, which decided to equip the Spider with a switch to override command-detonation. That would mean the device could lie in wait for weeks, to be set off by enemy troops or tanks - or an innocent passer-by or truck. Installing the switch turns it into just the sort of menace to noncombatants that the treaty prohibits.

The Spider is also suspect militarily. It is widely assumed that President Clinton did not sign the ban because of intense military opposition, but the armed services were ambivalent about the need for anti-personnel mines and have forgone the use of outlawed mines ever since. Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed the military's ambivalence in summing up its assessment of the need for mines in May 1996: "The historical record is mixed concerning antipersonnel land mines. We know that they cause casualties, some enemy and some friendly. We know that they inhibit movement - enemy and friendly - and the significance in battle is variable."

The need for minefields to defend Seoul from being overrun by North Korean invaders was often cited as a major reason for rejecting the ban. But there were no U.S. mines in South Korea's barrier defenses in 1997 and had not been since the early 1990s. At that time, responsibility for defending Seoul was turned over to South Korea, and U.S. forces were given a new mission of rapid maneuver, not static defense, to pinch off enemy breakthroughs and counterattack into North Korea. South Korea has since removed mines from its barrier defenses to create a corridor for road and rail links to its northern neighbor.

Nor was Korea's hilly terrain well-suited for offensive use of air-dropped or artillery-fired mines, which could bounce and roll far from wherever they land.

Military doubts about mines are not confined to the Korean Peninsula. The Air Force considers delivering them a waste of good planes, which can kill troops and tanks more directly with bombs and missiles. Dispersing modern mines by air or artillery from remote locations also conflicts with the Army doctrine of rapid maneuver. Commanders of armored units have resisted the use of such mines because without knowing exactly where they have landed, they worry that their own tanks and armored personnel carriers will set them off inadvertently.

Placing the Spider by hand and having troops in the loop to detonate them by command would reduce this fear. But not if the override switch is installed. Proponents say the switch is needed because command-detonation is susceptible to electronic jamming, but flipping a switch to override command-detonation would imperil friendly forces.

Why not deploy the Spider without installing the switch? That would reassure U.S. tank commanders and not be a turnoff to law-abiding nations.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Security Project at the Social Science Research Council and author of "Negotiating Minefields: The Landmines Ban in American Politics." His e-mail is sigal@ssrc.org.

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