The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Landmine Abolitionists Balk at Pentagonâ€TMs Pursuit of ‘Alternativesâ

by Catherine Komp

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

Aug. 10, 2006 – While the US government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs eradicating deadly landmines around the world – including those supplied by the United States itself – it is also funneling millions more into developing a new generation of “alternativeâ€� landmines.

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In July, the Pentagon announced it had awarded contracts to two companies for the development of a new land-mine system. Minnesota-based Alliant Techsystems, a company that has profited heavily from past mine-production contracts, and Massachusetts-based Textron Systems, a weapons and aircraft technology company, have collectively received $31.1 million to produce the “Spider XM-7 Network Command Munitions Low Rate Initial Production.�

Though the US military is not reported to have used antipersonnel mines since the Gulf War in 1991 and has prohibited their export since 1992, it continues to develop and stockpile the weapons. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations refused to sign the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, making the United States one of only fourteen countries that have rebuffed the international commitment to halt land-mine production.

According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, between 15,000 and 20,000 people are killed or maimed every year by mines and unexploded ordinance like bombs and artillery shells. The Campaign, which releases an annual report on the deadly devices, states that they also affect communities economically, when civilians can no long use farm fields or roads.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are killed or maimed every year by mines and unexploded ordinance like bombs and artillery shells.

The US has taken steps to decrease the use of antipersonnel mines and has condemned “persistent� landmines, which can lay active in the ground for decades, yet Washington has made no promises not to plant them in the future.

Arguing that “landmines remain necessaryâ€� for the US military, the Bush administration said it will continue to use persistent mines until 2010 to fulfill “treaty obligations to the Republic of Korea.â€� The administration also said it would continue to develop non-persistent anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines.  

But even a number of retired US generals and admirals have urged the Bush administration to join the Mine Ban Treaty, sharply criticizing US landmine policy as a “dangerous step backward.�

“[Antipersonnel mines] are outmoded weapons that have, time and again, proved to be a liability to our own troops,â€� wrote retired US Army Lieutenant General DeWitt C. Smith and seven other retired military officials to President Bush in May 2001. “We believe that the military, diplomatic and humanitarian advantages of speedy US accession [to the treaty] far outweigh the minimal military utility of these weapons.â€� 

The Pentagon has ordered a new landmine system called "Spider," which incorporates a high-tech "command and control" detonation mechanism. Soldiers would use the system to remotely detonate mines and other munitions. The Pentagon says Spider is in production but not yet deployed.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations refused to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, making the US one of only fourteen countries that have rebuffed the international commitment to halt land-mine production.

In June 2005, the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement sent an open letter to the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of human rights, faith-based, veterans’ and other groups. In it, the Office’s director, Richard Kidd, claimed that Spider-controlled mines do not "contribute… to the global landmine problem,"  because they are designed to self-destruct or de-activate after a set period of time.

But Mark Hiznay, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), pointed out that the Spider mine includes a "battle override" feature that temporarily reverts the device to being a victim-activated explosive, which can be triggered by anyone who accidentally steps on it, until deactivated by military personnel or a self-defusal period elapses.

"We think that all countries should be a part of the ban on antipersonnel landmines with no exceptions, loopholes or reservations," Hiznay told The NewStandard. "We don’t think it sends the right signal that the US is producing a system which as one of its features is the ability to function as an antipersonnel mine. And calling that an alternative for an antipersonnel mine is quite disingenuous."

Hiznay added that the Spider system would violate the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, had the US signed the accord. "The problem with the US alternatives program was that compliance with the bans on anti-personnel mines was never a stated requirement," he said.

Hiznay also cited another program – the Intelligent Munitions System (IMS) – which he calls the “next generation of landmines.â€� The Pentagon describes the program as a system of anti-personnel devices that is capable of “unattended employment for the detection, classification, identification, tracking and engagement of selected targetsâ€�  – similar to weapons prohibited under the Mine Ban Treaty . According to an HRW analysis of Defense Department documents, which TNS has reviewed, the Pentagon has requested $1.3 billion between 2005 and 2011 for development and production of IMS.

“We don’t think it sends the right signal that the US is producing a system which as one of its features is the ability to function as an antipersonnel mine. And calling that an alternative for an antipersonnel mine is quite disingenuous.”

Hiznay added that the Bush Administration’s policy to pursue “non-persistent� or “self-destructing� landmines would still violate the Mine Ban Treaty and still put civilians at risk.

“We don’t think the technological solution is the way to go. The complete prohibition is the only way to handle the humanitarian problems,� Hiznay said.

While the Pentagon pursues new mine weaponry, a bill introduced this month in Congress would prohibit the federal government from procuring weapons that are “victim-activated,â€� meaning mines that detonate when triggered by a civilian or a combatant. 

Though not an all-inclusive ban on the use of landmines, Scott Stedjan, coordinator of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, said the Victim-activated Landmine Abolition Act of 2006 is a long-awaited step in the right direction. The bill was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania).

But the bill would not prohibit the deployment of weapons the US has already procured, nor does it mandate the clearing of mines. It also fails to require the US to join the Mine Ban Treaty.

Stedjan told TNS that while his organization supports the bill, it is “very fully aware that we’re not going to get the US to ban the use, stockpiling and everything else of anti-personnel mines.�

The US maintains a stockpile of more than 10 million antipersonnel mines and 7.5 million anti-vehicle mines, according to 2002 figures released by the General Accounting Office  .

An estimated 80 million landmines remain in the ground in more than 80 countries, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. 

CORRECTION

Major Change:

Our description of anti-personnel mine systems in development by the US military contained several substantial errors. After considerable investigation and cooperation from Human Rights Watch and the Pentagon, we can now confidently correct the record.

The original article stated that the Spider mine system works with a command-and-control system called Matrix. However, Matrix does not control Spider landmines; it is an entirely separate detonation mechanism, and it is not covered by the narrow scope of the Ottawa Test Ban Treaty, even for signatory nations. Therefore, all references to Matrix have been removed from the article.

Additionally, though our original article accurately noted Spider’s self-destruct and deactivation safeguards, it also stated that once Spider-controlled mines are switched to victim-activated mode, they can only be diffused by military personnel. From what we can now discern of this secretive system, it appears that the self-destruct/deactivation failsafe is at least theoretically intact and takes effect after some period in victim-activated mode, with or without human intervention using Spider’s control system.

Many of these errors are a result from failing to contact the Pentagon with enough time for the spokesperson to provide the answers to our questions. A Department of Defense representative responded to our queries after the article had been posted. From that dialog, we learned the above information (which we then verified, while we could not verify other statements) and that the spider program is past the development phase and into production, information we have now included in the article.

 | Change Posted August 20, 2006 at 11:31 AM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Article originally appeared in the August 10, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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