Trump administration broadens use of landmines

President Donald J. Trump's administration has expanded the ability of combatant commanders to use landmines in specific, exceptional incidents. Previously, the only place that U.S. forces could employ landmines was on the Korean peninsula. Jim Garamone reports on DOD News.

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A soldier of the 101st Airborne assigned to ISAF is placing an M18 Claymore antipersonnel mine (Picture source: U.S. DoD)

Trump made the decision to broaden the use of landmines as a result of a study commissioned by then-Defense Secretary James N. Mattis as part of the National Defense Strategy. "The National Defense Strategy talks about the return to great power competition," said Vic Mercado, acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities. "When we look at great power competition, some things come to the fore. … We are the greatest military in the world, but that advantage is diminishing." Mercado spoke to Pentagon reporters after White House officials announced the change.

Those studying the policy looked at it from a variety of positions: from capability gaps, risks to mission, risks to forces, political, military, technological and diplomatic aspects. The study took about a year.

The new policy will allow combatant commanders — all four-star officers — to propose using landmines in exceptional circumstances, Mercado said. Any plan proposing the use of landmines off the Korean peninsula must be approved by the defense secretary. The new generation of landmines also takes into account the U.S. emphasis on protecting innocent civilians. The new landmines are a significant departure from those deployed as recently as Desert Storm. These mines self-destruct or deactivate after a certain amount of time. This amount of time can be measured in hours or months. They do not stay in the ground threatening future generations.

Landmines today have the ability to self-destruct or self-deactivate to a very high degree of certainty. "The level of certainty is six in one million," Mercado said. This technology allows the military to have the capability to use landmines and protect civilians, Mercado said. "We can do both," he said. "We can go back to giving our soldiers, Marines this capability, which may be decisive in a future conflict, and, at the same time, be absolutely committed to reducing and limiting civilian casualties."

Even the simple ability to use landmines could be an advantage to U.S. forces, Mercado said. The threat of the use would cause the adversary to have to take pause and say, 'Do I need to clear this field or not,'" he said. "That could give you that tactical and operational advantage."

Statement attributable to Vic Mercado, Performing the Duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities

The Administration is rescinding the Presidential Policy concerning anti-personnel landmines (APL), in favor of a new United States landmine policy that will be overseen by the Department of Defense. The United States remains committed to working to minimize risks to civilians posed by landmines and explosive remnants of war. The United States also remains fully committed to complying with its treaty obligations regarding landmines and explosive remnants of war, as contained in Amended Protocol II and Protocol V, annexed to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Landmines, including APL, remain a vital tool in conventional warfare that the United States military cannot responsibly forgo, particularly when faced with substantial and potentially overwhelming enemy forces in the early stages of combat. Withholding a capability that would give our ground forces the ability to deny terrain temporarily and therefore shape an enemy’s movement to our benefit irresponsibly risks American lives. The United States will not sacrifice American servicemembers’ safety, particularly when technologically advanced safeguards are available that allow landmines to be employed responsibly to ensure our military’s warfighting advantage, and limit the risk of unintended harm to civilians. These safeguards require landmines to self-destruct, or in the event of a self-destruct failure, to self-deactivate within a prescribed period of time.

The Department of Defense’s new policy allows planning for and use of APL in future potential conflicts, including outside the Korean Peninsula, while continuing to prohibit the operational use of any “persistent” landmines (landmines without a self-destruct/self-deactivation function). Under this policy, if combatant commanders authorize the use of landmines in a major combat situation, those landmines will include the aforementioned safeguards that will prevent them from being a threat to civilians after a conflict ends.

The United States will continue to lead in international humanitarian demining efforts that locate and remove landmines and explosive remnants of war that pose persistent threats to civilians living in current and former conflict areas around the world. The rescission of the previous policy does not reduce this national commitment, and it does not exacerbate the problems associated with unexploded munitions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why is the prior U.S. landmine policy being replaced?
A: DOD’s study determined that the U.S. military faced a critical capability gap, making it less prepared for future security challenges, due to restrictions previously imposed.

Q: Why not keep landmine policy at the Presidential level?
A: The President decided that landmine policy, like policies for all other conventional (non-nuclear) weapons, falls squarely within the Secretary of Defense’s responsibilities.

Q: Does this change the U.S. Government’s legal obligations with respect to landmines?
A: No, U.S. international legal obligations have not changed. The new landmine policy provides more protections for civilians than are required under CCW Amended Protocol II.

Q: What’s changed since the last Administration committed to pursue Ottawa Convention accession?
A: The strategic environment has changed since 2016. We face an era of strategic competition that requires our military to become more lethal, resilient, and ready for future contingencies.

Q: Does the new policy distinguish between anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines?
A: No. All landmines in DOD’s operational inventory have safety features to limit unintended harm to non-combatants; thus, this distinction made in the prior policy is not necessary.

Q: How reliable are current U.S. mine safety features?
A: Reliability of self-destruct and self-deactivate safety features in the current inventory is very high: there is only a 6 in 1 million chance of a U.S. landmine being active after a pre-determined period.

Q: How many landmines in the U.S. inventory are persistent? Does the new policy change this?
A: There are no persistent landmines in the U.S. operational inventory; the new policy does not change this.

Q: What’s the new policy’s impact on NATO countries that are party to the Ottawa Convention?
A: The United States would expect other countries to abide by their legal obligations, including obligations they may have assumed by becoming Party to the Ottawa Convention.

Q: Why are landmines still needed in modern war?
A: Such area-denial systems are a “force multiplier” in key operational contexts; they can obstruct, channel, and delay/stop numerically superior adversaries and prevent them from outflanking friendly forces.

Q: Is the change in policy due to the current situation with Iran?
A: No. It is the result of DOD’s policy review and the President’s imperative to equip our warfighters with the appropriate means to implement the National Defense Strategy.