Obama to Overrule Military on Landmines?

By Dustin Walker

The Obama administration may be moving closer to banning landmines that U.S. military officials have said are critical to deterring aggression from North Korea.

The Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama is set next week to approve the Ottawa Treaty, an international treaty banning landmines, and position the Department of Defense to comply with the treaty.

However, a congressional source tells RealClearDefense that the timing of such an announcement is unclear and may be put off in the face of potential criticism from Congress, concerns from the South Korean government, and lingering reservations at the Pentagon.

On Friday, the White House rejected the characterization of the Wall Street Journal report. "The reports that have been circulating on the U.S. position on the Ottawa Treaty have a number of inaccuracies in them, starting with the most basic fact that the United States cannot sign the Treaty given that it closed for signature in March 1999," National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden told RealClearDefense. "Without correcting every detail, I will simply say that these reports do not accurately characterize where U.S. policy stands."

The Ottawa Treaty officially closed for signature on March 1, 1999. But that doesn't prevent President Obama from symbolically signing and aligning U.S. practices with the treaty, effectively acceding to it. 

Yet one of the biggest potential sources of opposition to the treaty may be some of President Obama’s top military advisers who have defended the use of landmines as essential to fulfilling U.S. national defense needs.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey testified before Congress in March of this year that he had rendered his military advice that landmines are “an important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces of the United States.” Dempsey emphasized that U.S. landmines can be set for specific times and are designed to self-destruct, thus posing less of a danger to civilians during and after conflicts.

Less than a month later, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the current commander U.S. commander in Korea, testified before Congress that landmines “are a critical element in the defense of the Republic of Korea and our interest there. And they're a critical element of our contingency plans, as well.”

A recent 30-page Joint Staff assessment detailed the dangers of a landmine ban with special concern for U.S. defense of South Korea, according to sources briefed on the report. However, the assessment remains classified.

The Ottawa Treaty aims to eliminate anti-personnel landmines, and has contributed to a dramatic decline in related casualties. Between 1999 and 2011, the number of reported new landmine casualties dropped by more than half, from 8,807 to 4,286. Most casualties occur in just a few countries – Afghanistan, Colombia, and Cambodia had the worst records during that twelve year period.

161 countries are currently parties to the treaty. In addition to the United States, non-signatories include China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan.

Treaty advocates say landmines are of questionable military value in the modern age. “While in the past they may have protected borders and slowed advancing troops, now most armies are mobile and can get through a minefield in less than 30 minutes,” says the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. “Modern motion detection equipment, night detection technology and strategically placed guns can protect military installations, borders and other areas better than landmines.” Regardless, landmine opponents say the humanitarian costs of landmines far outweigh any conceivable military utility.

Opponents of acceding to the Ottawa Treaty say that it fails to distinguish between “dumb” and “smart” mines. Dumb mines, also called persistent mines, cannot self-destruct or self-deactivate. As a result, they can remain a danger to civilian populations decades after wars end.

In 2011, the United States completely ended the use of persistent landmines, completing a process started under the Bush administration in 2004 to remove all such mines from service.

But the United States has maintained the right to use smart mines designed to self-destruct – typically after a period of four hours, 48 hours, or 15 days. If the self-destruct mechanism fails, the landmine’s battery will go dead within 90 days, disarming the explosive.

Despite these advances in technology, smart anti-personnel mines are banned under the Ottawa Treaty.

A report by the National Research Council concluded that “the current inventory of self-destructing and self-deactivating U.S. [anti-personnel landmines] is militarily advantageous and safe. They achieve desired military objectives without endangering U.S. warfighters or noncombatants more than other weapons of war.” The report also pointed out that many alternatives that are compliant with the Ottawa Treaty “may be less humane than present U.S. self-destructing and self-deactivating landmines.”

In the past, the Department of Defense has reported to the Government Accountability Office that smart mines have a 99.99-percent self-destruct reliability rate.

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Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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