Is the Virtue in the Weapon or the Cause?

The Biden administration’s recent announcement of its intention to adhere to the provisions of the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel landmines has real consequences. Going forward, the United States will not use, stockpile, produce, or transfer those weapons any longer. Maintaining sufficient stocks for the unique situation of defending South Korea is the one exception; all other anti-personnel landmines will be destroyed.

This decision is the latest in the long controversy over the use of anti-personnel landmines and, more broadly, what means are moral in war. Indeed, the Biden policy is a return to that of the Obama administration, which had been reversed by the Trump administration.

These policy changes can be made at the presidential level, because the Ottawa Convention against anti-personnel land mines is not, by strict definition, a “treaty.” Treaties must be ratified by a two-third affirmative vote in the Senate, which is unimaginable in the current U.S. political landscape. What is somewhat surprising is that the war in Ukraine may not have changed the minds of more of those convinced that anti-personnel landmines weapons must be banned.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley explained the importance of landmines for the Ukrainians during his April testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying “I do think land mines are important, especially if you’re in the defense….The landmines are being effectively used by Ukrainian forces to shape the avenues of approach by Russian armed forces…anti-tank or anti-personnel mines are very effective when used in combat.”

Milley’s assertions may have been on solid ground during the hearing, but now appear out of step with the Biden administration’s stated policy. A particular distinction would seem to be his statements that anti-personnel landmines are necessary in conjunction with anti-tank landmines in order to keep enemy soldiers from moving and disarming these larger landmines; anti-tank landmines have pressure activated fuses that require the weight of a vehicle to set them off, meaning they are (relatively) easy to move or disarm by a trained professional.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Milley raised these concerns with the White House, per an anonymous State official, but were apparently overruled.

Despite couching his comments in pure battlefield terminology, Milley almost surely knew that he was entering a virtual minefield himself with those who strongly believe that anti-personnel landmines must be completely banned.

There is strong support in the Senate for banning anti-personnel landmines. A resolution (PDF) by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a long-time champion of banning anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, is representative: “Let us be the country that not only denounces their use in Ukraine, but denounces and renounces their use everywhere.”

Within days of the hearing the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines—U.S. Cluster Munition Coalition issued a press release, supported by a number of organizations, that “condemns use of anti-personnel landmines regardless of potential military value.”

The problem with anti-personnel landmines—and another weapon often labeled as inhumane, cluster munitions—is that they do not always function properly.

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They had already written a letter to Biden entreating him “to ban their use, production, acquisition, and transfer and to swiftly accede to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, aka the Ottawa Convention of which more than 160 nations have signed.

The problem with anti-personnel landmines—and another weapon often labeled as inhumane, cluster munitions—is that they do not always function properly. The unexploded weapon can be detonated years later by an unsuspecting civilian. Milley understands this danger and noted that this is a technical problem that can be solved by making the mine deactivate after a specified time and become inert.

But to those who believe that use of these weapons can never be justified due to their potential to indiscriminately harm civilians none of Miley’s arguments are relevant. It does not matter that the mines could be rendered inert after a period of time.

They should be banned and all stocks destroyed to discourage others who will not, or cannot, develop and field sophisticated anti-personnel mines from using them. Only then can it be assured that they can never be used again. It’s a lovely idea, but one that would have additional consequences in conflicts of resistance.

We can all agree that unexploded ordnance is horrific, particularly when it injures or kills unsuspecting civilians long after a conflict ends. Nevertheless, anti-personnel landmines, when used legally, provide a vital tool for resisting an invader.

Similar outrage has appeared periodically about Russians wantonly using weapons that are supposedly banned by the Geneva Convention. The employment of thermobarics, white phosphorous—as well as cluster munitions and landmines—were erroneously characterized as illegal, because the weapons themselves were erroneously characterized as illegal. In the early days of the Ukraine War, these accusations were a common refrain in the media.

These weapons are horrible as are all weapons of war. They are not, however, illegal. They are in the arsenals of many nations because they are effective. The potential for illegality is in the particularity of their intended use—as with all weapons ranging from rifle bullets to cruise missiles—when they are employed indiscriminately against civilians.

Anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions actually are generally small and have a relatively small radius of damage as compared to a number of other weapons that are dumb and even more deadly.

For instance, fragmentation from the U.S. Mk84 2,000 pound bomb will kill people up to 360 meters from its point of impact. Its blast can cause severe injuries out to 800 meters. Anti-personnel landmines and the small munitions that come from a cluster munition round are more like the U.S. MK32 hand grenade, which has an effective casualty radius of two meters in open areas

The discussions regarding the banning of anti-personnel landmines and other weapons are generally among nations that have not been involved in a large-scale war against a well-armed, competent aggressor since World War II.

Thus, the view has evolved, during over 70 years of relative peace, that some weapons are irredeemably wrong. The development of this perspective, right or wrong, may well have been possible because the weapons were not seen as necessary in the future conflicts that the signatories envisioned.

As we are seeing in Ukraine, the future likely envisioned when the Ottawa Convention was signed—a peaceful, post–Cold War world—may not resemble the reality that we have to work with now. Certainly the Ukrainians find themselves trying to thwart a well-armed, ruthless aggressor.

As they must, they are most likely using every legal weapon at their disposal. This would similarly be the case for other nations facing similar aggression in the future.

What would advocates of the absolute ban of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions tell the Ukrainians? That it is better that they suffer more casualties, if not lose the war, so long as they prevent the potential harm to some unknown number of their civilians that the landmines pose after the war?

Or, consider an American soldier guarding a border somewhere else in the world in the future. Should we tell that trooper that although there are weapons that could slow an enemy invasion by bolstering his defensive position, he will not have them because they might injure civilians later and therefore are inappropriate? These are not easy questions.

We might recall the words of the Union Civil War General William T. Sherman once said: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

For some, what might separate the morality of the weapons being used in the ongoing war in Ukraine is not the means, but the purpose of their employment. In the case of Ukraine, defense versus Russian aggression.

Consequently, it might seem absolutely proper to such adherents for the Ukrainians to use these weapons in their defense to stop the Russians in their immoral and illegal act of aggression. Under this view, the same would hold true for any state, to include the signatories of the conventions banning their use, in similar circumstances.

Given that NATO is a defensive alliance, anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and other legal but shunned weapons may have a vital role to play in the defense of the alliance.

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The possibility of future Russian aggression is no longer a wargaming scenario to test concepts and capabilities; it is a threat that must be mitigated. Given that NATO is a defensive alliance, anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and other legal but shunned weapons may have a vital role to play in the defense of the alliance.

Indeed, they might be vital in defending the small, isolated Baltic States if Russia ever invaded. In some ways, the defense of those nations might seem even as difficult as that of South Korea against North Korea.

Insistence on an absolute ban on weapons such as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, by not weighting more heavily their military necessity in the balance against possible risk of civilian harm, could potentially risk undermining the ability to prevail in larger moral struggles that may play out in state-on-state combats.

Anti-personnel landmines can be a danger to civilians, but the U.S. exception for their use in South Korea shows that they still have a vital role to play in war.

It would likely be too late to revisit the Biden administration decision, but at some point the implications of the war in Ukraine need to be assessed to get a better sense of what means the United States, it allies, and partners will require to defend against possible aggression by Russia and China—neither of whom are signatories to the Ottawa Convention.

These are the adversaries for which every administration since Obama’s has told the military to prepare. If analysis were to show that anti-personnel landmines were integral to effective defenses against these possible aggressors, then the military could be directed to do what Milley (PDF) asserted was possible: develop anti-personnel landmines that render themselves inert or self-destruct so that at least they would pose no future hazard.

Bottom line: mines can be an effective military tool although they admittedly can kill or injure civilians. I imagine that, if asked right now, a fair number of Ukrainians might say that dealing with unexploded ordnance would be preferable in their minds to living under Russian occupation.


David E. Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

This commentary originally appeared on Lawfire on August 5, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.

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David E. Johnson