Science Technology & Military Experimentation

The Quest to Replace Antipersonnel Landmines

The U.S. military is looking for munitions and other devices that can minimize the risk of injury or death to noncombatants.

In many areas around the world, fields that once produced crops lie fallow, children are cautioned not to leave the road on their way to school, farmers caring for their herds dread bringing them in from the pasture, and a casual walk through a peaceful village reveals an unusual number of amputees. These seemingly unrelated circumstances have something in common-antipersonnel landmines, small, unobtrusive, inexpensive weapons that can remain active for a long time after hostilities have ended. In other places, such as the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, where U.S. military forces are on constant alert in anticipation of an incursion by a numerically superior enemy, these same antipersonnel landmines enhance their security. Although the minefields would not stop an attack, they might buy enough time for defenders to prepare to fight back.

Ideal weapons provide friendly forces with maximum flexibility and inflict maximum damage on the enemy-all without injuring innocent noncombatants. Antipersonnel landmines have these military benefits, but also have dire residual effects. The most obvious positive effect of landmines is that they kill or disable enemy personnel and damage their equipment. Antipersonnel landmines also serve several other, less obvious, functions. Minefields place an enemy in a vulnerable position that can be exploited by friendly forces. They can force an enemy to divide his forces, making him more vulnerable, and can interfere with command and control functions. Minefields can optimize the capabilities of other weapon systems, such as air-delivered precision weapons, by delaying enemy forces in an area where these systems can be used most effectively. Finally, landmines can protect friendly forces from enemy infiltration or attack, as they do in Korea. They provide significant economies of force in places where few troops or support weapons are available to defend an area. They protect small units of soldiers, alert defenders of enemy attack, control enemy movements, and prevent the enemy from disabling larger, more visible antitank mines, while inflicting casualties on enemy troops.

U.S. military doctrine requires that minefields be mapped, marked, and eventually cleared. Many people in the military, however, remain ambivalent about using antipersonnel landmines because, despite these precautions, they have several disadvantages. The principal drawback, of course, is that they cannot discriminate between friends, foes, and noncombatants. In addition, they occasionally kill friendly personnel, especially in hastily marked minefields. Finally, if the tide of battle changes rapidly, mines emplaced during defensive missions can become an obstacle to the execution of rapid offensive maneuvers.

In recent years, concerted efforts have been made to minimize the effects of all weapons on noncombatants-so-called collateral damage. Over time, landmines used by the United States and other countries with advanced military forces have become more complex, more effective, and easier to use. Advances in the 1970s led to the development of mines capable of destroying or deactivating themselves after a given time. Today, all antipersonnel landmines in U.S. stocks, with the exception of those intended for the defense of Korea, are self-destructing and/or self-deactivating. Other nations and nonstate forces, unfortunately, still use less technologically advanced landmines, which are inexpensive, easily obtainable, and highly effective. Most of these simple, nonself-destructing mines have been deployed with no thought to keeping track of their locations. As a result, millions of them strewn across old battlefields have killed or maimed thousands of innocent civilians in the last 25 years and impeded the resumption of normal activities after conflicts have ended.

Humanitarian groups, international organizations, and many governments around the world have increasingly identified these residual hazards as a threat to innocents and demanded that all anti-personnel landmines be eliminated. The civilian casualties that occur every year are a major international concern that has been taken up by many nongovernmental groups. In 1997, the international outcry led to the Ottawa Convention, which was signed or agreed to by 139 nations, but thus far not by China, Israel, Russia, Turkey, the United States, and several other countries. The convention bans the use of all antipersonnel landmines, which are defined as mines that explode "by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person."

The U.S. government has taken a number of steps to mitigate the adverse effects of antipersonnel landmines but has not signed the Ottawa Convention. In addition to using self-destructing/self-deactivating mines, the United States has destroyed a large num-ber of "dumb," nonself-destructing/self-deactivating mines and banned their export. The United States also assists in demining efforts and provides aid to victims of antipersonnel landmines. Most significantly, the U.S. government has established an aggressive program to identify technologies that could serve the same functions as antipersonnel landmines but would not have their negative residual effects.

Antipersonnel landmines used by the United States, with the exception of those now warehoused for use in Korea, do not have long-term residual effects because they are self-destructing and/or self-deactivating. Nevertheless, they still are not Ottawa-compliant because they explode on contact with a person and do not discriminate between friend and foe. The Clinton administration indicated that the United States would be willing to sign the Ottawa Convention in 2006 if alternatives could be fielded to soldiers by that time. He instructed the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to begin developing alternatives that would serve similar functions, which are considered essential to U.S. combat capabilities. DOD responded by initiating a series of projects and studies-referred to as tracks-to identify alternatives. Track I, led by the U.S. Army, has investigated alternatives to the nonself-destructing mines used in Korea and proposed the production of a Remote Area-Denial Artillery Munition, or RADAM (a weapon that combines two existing mine systems into one munition). Track II, led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is focused on long-term alternatives that would prevent enemy access to an area. Track III, which overlaps Tracks I and II, is led directly by the staff of the Secretary of Defense. The focus of Track III is on new or existing technologies that would provide capabilities equivalent to those of antipersonnel landmines when used alone or in mixed systems with antitank mines. As part of Track III, in response to a mandate from Congress, DOD asked the National Research Council (NRC) to empanel a committee to identify potential alternative technologies, tactics, and operations that could be available by 2006, the date the United States could sign the Ottawa Convention.

Although the Ottawa Convention was a prime context for the NRC study, the study was limited to technological and operational issues and was not expected to comment on the need for, or the morality of, antipersonnel landmines or whether the United States should accede to the Convention. The NRC committee soon realized, however, that the overarching issues are enormously complex, beginning with the question of what makes a weapon more or less humanitarian. Eliminating antipersonnel landmines may not always lead to more "humanitarian" battlefields. Unexploded ammunition, more powerful ammunition with a larger lethal radius than antipersonnel landmines, more airborne precision munitions, and other kinds of weapons used to compensate for the loss of antipersonnel landmines can also cause civilian casualties. There is also a possibility that the search for alternatives could lead to an arms race in a category of weapons that has, up to now, received little attention in terms of technological sophistication. The consequences of escalating costs, as well as of the temptation of some belligerents under the stress of conflict to resort to the use of "dumb" antipersonnel landmines, are hard to assess.

The study was conducted at an interesting historical juncture. The United States is at peace, and, at the same time, the number of new technologies with military possibilities is unprecedented. The so-called "revolution in military affairs" now envisioned could propel the U.S. military into an information-age capability on the battlefield. The convergence of these factors presents U.S. armed forces with a unique window of opportunity to develop new conceptions and new systems in a time of peace.

The central conclusion of the NRC study is that new systems that incorporate sophisticated sensing and communications technology could eventually be developed that would enhance the capability of U.S. forces. These new weapon systems would respond to humanitarian concerns by leaving the decision of whether or not to explode a munition to a person (a "man-in-the-loop") who could first determine whether or not an intruder in a minefield, or any designated area, was an enemy combatant. The deterrent function of antipersonnel landmines could be provided by other kinds of devices, thus eliminating the danger created by mines left in the field after a military action. However, many advances in technology will be necessary for the development of alternatives, especially in the areas of munitions, information technology, and communications. The following examples suggest where these technologies might take us:

  • Sensors. Imaging systems have clearly demonstrated their value on the battlefield. Affordable, cooled and uncooled staring focal-plane arrays and associated components can operate in the midwave infrared and long-wave infrared bands. Advances in other sensor technologies, such as video cameras and motion, acoustic, odor, and other detectors, could significantly reduce the costs of operations and provide warfighters with better performing, smaller, lighter systems.
  • Miniaturization. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are a revolutionary enabling technology. Embedded into weapon systems, MEMS will provide new levels of situational awareness, information, precision strike capabilities, and new weapons. MEMS will provide integrated electromagnetic systems with many advantages-small size, low power, low mass, low cost, and high functionality. The primary goal of the DARPA MEMS program is to develop technology that merges sensing, actuating, and computing into systems that increase the perception and performance of weapon systems and the control of battlefield environments.
  • Platforms. Advances in the development of unmanned ground and air vehicles might enable a platoon pinned down by enemy fire to use sensors to look over the horizon, behind buildings, and beyond the range of average eyesight. These unmanned systems might be able to operate for hours, while feeding continuous video images back to ground stations that could use the information to coordinate ground attacks and air strikes.
  • Connectivity. The U.S. Army's multifunctional, on-the-move, secure, adaptive, integrated communication (MOSAIC) project will be an energy-
    efficient, wireless, mobile communications system that provides reach-back and secure, networked sensor integration. Its open systems architecture will increase its survivability and enhance military communications.
From a military standpoint, these new systems would all improve the situational awareness of U.S. forces, but they might not be deployed by the 2006 deadline, partly because funding for research has been sporadic at best. In addition to reviewing existing antipersonnel landmines systems and potential alternatives being researched or developed at some level through DOD's three-track program, the committee solicited ideas from independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations, as well as from committee members themselves.

The methodology developed by the committee for assessing the alternative systems considered several factors: when a potential alternative would be available; how effective it would be militarily; how well it would address humanitarian concerns, based on both the Ottawa Convention and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (the other major international agreement governing antipersonnel landmines); cost; overall technical risk; and whether a change in tactics or doctrine would be required. Based on those qualitative assessments, the committee reached several specific conclusions and recommendations.

The emergence of new technologies will create opportunities after 2006 for the development of systems that could outperform today's antipersonnel landmines and would be compliant with the Ottawa Convention. The development of sensor-net technology, an extensive interwoven network of technologically advanced sensors, should be pursued aggressively, and advances in the commercial sector and by other agencies should be applied.
A nonself-destructing landmine alternative, or NSD-A, is currently being developed under the U.S. Army Track I for use against foot soldiers. This hand-emplaced system would allow a soldier or operator, looking at a hand-held display through which sensors would signal that an intruder had entered the protected area, to decide whether to detonate the explosive or let the person pass safely. Unlike antipersonnel landmines that explode on contact, the decision for detonation of an NSD-A would be in human hands.

A highly contentious issue is whether the NSD-A should be equipped with a battlefield override switch, a software feature that could switch the NSD-A mines to explode automatically in cases of emergency. For example, if a soldier's position were about to be overrun, rather than sacrifice the soldier or abandon the position and leave it undefended, the weapon could be put on "automatic." Indecision about the override switch has stopped production of the NSD-A because its presence would render the weapon non-Ottawa compliant. To allow production of this otherwise Ottawa-compliant mine to commence, two suites of weapon software, one with the switch and one without, could be developed simultaneously in preparation for a presidential decision concerning the Ottawa Convention. In any case, Ottawa-compliant variations to the battlefield override switch should be explored to provide U.S. forces with greater flexibility and to improve a soldier's ability to discriminate among friends, enemies, and noncombatants.

One alternative that would eliminate the override switch would be to augment the NSD-A with more sensors. Numerous advanced sensors placed in depth on the battlefield could enable the operator to discriminate sooner and better among friends, foes, and noncombatants. The sensors would improve the operator's situational awareness and supply sufficient information for him/her to call in timely intervention by other weapon systems. In addition, the system would be Ottawa-compliant because it would not require an override switch.

A second alternative to eliminate the switch would be internet-worked digital displays and decision procedures among several NSD-A operators. In this
system, control of the mines would be transferred instantaneously from an operator at risk to an operator in a less dangerous location, and so forth. This Ottawa-compliant system would have a man-in-the-loop to make decisions to detonate munitions based on NSD-A digital input and direct observation and would provide great flexibility, including the option of turning off all mines to enable friendly forces to move through their own NSD-A fields. The operator could command munitions to explode when the enemy was within the NSD-A area and decide not to detonate the munitions when confirmed on noncombatants or friendly forces were moving back through the area into friendly defenses.

A third alternative would be an override-type switch that would cause rapid, random detonation of NSD-A munitions over a brief period of time upon a command from the operator in an attempt to slow an advancing enemy and to buy time for an NSD-A operator to take appropriate action. After a few minutes, once all munitions had been detonated, friendly forces could go forward safely or otherwise maneuver unimpeded by their own NSD-As. This type of override switch would be Ottawa-compliant because the munitions would explode randomly and not by the contact or proximity of a person.

In certain military operations, such as peacekeeping, which is typically carried out in the midst of civilian populations, nonlethal alternatives to antipersonnel landmines are highly desirable. Nonlethal weapons by themselves could not fully replace the mines because they would not inspire the fear associated with the life-threatening munitions. Nevertheless, they would be useful deterrents in peacekeeping operations.

New technologies after 2006 that could change the battlefield of the future would require modernizing existing, remotely delivered (by artillery or air) pure-antitank landmine systems by incorporating other technologies, some of them being developed for other purposes, such as sensors, precision locators, and antitank mines with much larger lethal radii. DARPA's proposed self-healing minefield is a network of antitank mines that could detect when a mine had been disabled and automatically fill in the gap, thus eliminating the need for antipersonnel landmines to protect the minefield. Perhaps the greatest payoff would result from the development of vast networks of sensors, communications links, and nonmine combat systems that would provide human operators with real-time information enabling them to discriminate between friend, foe, and noncombatant. All appropriate lethal and/or nonlethal weapons systems in range could then be called in.

The self-destructing/self-deactivating capability of current U.S. antipersonnel landmines should be extended to all nonrecoverable, explosive munitions. In one of his last acts as secretary of defense, William Cohen directed that the percentage of munitions that fail to explode be reduced to 1 percent or less. Although this is not a substitute for self-destruction or self-deactivation, it is an important step in the right direction.

In summary, future technologies could enable U.S. forces to retain most of the military advantages of current antipersonnel landmines and simultaneously substantially reduce the risk of unintended casualties. Because the country is at peace with no apparent peer competition and because the military forces are seeking to transform themselves, this is an opportune time for the United States to pursue these new technologies. The U.S. example may also encourage other countries to consider alternative technologies that would not cause the extraordinary damage to innocent civilians casued by nonself-destructing antipersonnel landmines.

National Research Council. 2001. Alternative Technologies to Replace Antipersonnel Landmines. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
About the Author: George Bugliarello, NAE, is chancellor of Polytechnic University. Larry G. Lehowicz is vice president of Quantum Research International. Margaret N. Novack is a senior program officer in the National Research Council's Department of Military Science and Technology.