Obama to Overrule Military on Landmines?

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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.

Security and stability on the Korean Peninsula has loomed over the consideration of the Ottawa Treaty under the last three presidential administrations.

Millions of devices were deployed by both sides during the Korean War. In the decades after the war’s end, South Korea has refused to sign the Ottawa Treaty and has continued to lay new landmines along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to deter North Korea’s million-man army from launching an invasion. In total, over one million landmines remain deployed by both sides along the DMZ.

The U.S. currently has a variety of mines stockpiled for a potential contingency in Korea, where 25,000 American troops are currently stationed. However, the U.S. does not maintain minefields anywhere in the world, including Korea.

During the Ottawa Treaty’s negotiation, the Clinton administration sought unsuccessfully to include an exception for landmines deployed in the DMZ between North and South Korea. This failure, combined with the lack of treaty-compliant alternatives to anti-personnel landmines, led President Clinton to leave the treaty unsigned when he left office.

The Bush administration defended the “valid and essential” role of landmines in military operations. In particular, administration policy emphasized the distinction between smart and dumb mines. Smart mines would allow the U.S. to address the humanitarian problems associated with landmines, while preserving needed military capability, the administration argued.

After conducting its own policy review, the Obama administration agreed with Bush administration and decided not to accede to the treaty. “This administration undertook a policy review and we decided our landmine policy remains in effect,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in November 2009. “We made our policy review and we determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention.”

But in 2010, the Obama administration decided under intense political pressure to revisit the issue with a comprehensive review. The state of that review is unclear, but the White House is pushing for its completion. 

"As we've said before, we are pressing to conclude our extensive and ongoing review of our landmine policy," NSC spokesman Caitlin Hayden told RealClearDefense. "We will share outcomes from that process as soon as we are in a position to do so."

So what has changed that would make the acceding to the treaty a good idea now?

Not much, according to General Dempsey. At a March hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) asked the chairman of the joint chiefs if “anything changed between 2009 and today that would render our use of those mines any less important than it was in 2009.” Dempsey responded, “My military judgment is actually [that] the tensions on the peninsula have increased.”

This has some on Capitol Hill concerned.

“President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama back in 2009, our allies in Northeast Asia, our senior military leaders in the Pentagon, and U.S. Forces Korea have all opposed signing this treaty,” one congressional source said. “If the White House is going to move ahead and comply with its provisions, they first need to explain just what has changed on the Korean Peninsula and along the DMZ in the last five years that suddenly makes removing these mines a good idea.”

Congressional opposition is already building to acceding to the Ottawa Treaty. During an appearance on Fox Business yesterday, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee pledged support for the efforts of Rep. Forbes, who plans to introduce an amendment to the defense appropriations bill under consideration in the House that would prohibit funding to implement the convention. The amendment’s passage could set up a major partisan debate during the conference process on the appropriations measure. 

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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