The Biden administration announced Tuesday that the military will no longer develop, produce or export anti-personnel land mines and will restrict their use outside the Korean Peninsula. Any anti-personnel mines not earmarked for South Korea’s defense will be destroyed, administration officials said.
The move reverses a policy shift approved by President Trump in 2020. It also revived a debate on the role of land mines in modern warfare and whether the U.S. should unilaterally strip itself of the option to deploy them.
“President Biden is committed to continuing the United States’ role as the world’s leader in mitigating the harmful consequences of anti-personnel landmines worldwide,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
Except for the divided Korean Peninsula, where U.S. ally South Korea faces a nuclear-armed North Korea across a tense Demilitarized Zone, the Biden administration policy aligns it with the provisions of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty prohibiting the stockpiling and use of anti-personnel land mines. However, the U.S. isn’t a signatory to the treaty.
“We will continue to pursue material and operational solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention, while we at the same time ensure our ability to meet our alliance commitments,” said Stanley L. Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs in the State Department, told reporters Tuesday.
The U.S. International Campaign to Ban Landmines in a statement called Mr. Biden’s decision an “important first step,” but urged the administration to remove anti-personnel land mines in South Korea as well. “Landmines are indiscriminate weapons that devastate civilian communities during conflict and for decades after the conflict has ended,” the organization said.
Although human rights groups have pushed for the change for years, some say the land mine debate raises difficult questions for military planners.
Retired Army Col. David Maxwell has seen the scourge that land mines can cause. He often sent Special Forces troops to places like Laos and Cambodia to help clean up fields littered with still-active mines.
“I’m sensitive to how bad land mines are. They are a terrible weapon that inflicts terrible damage,” Mr. Maxwell, now a military analyst with the Foundation of Defense of Democracies think tank, said Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Times.
But, he acknowledged that land mines can still play an important role on the battlefield.
“There is military utility to using them,” Mr. Maxwell said, shortly after the White House announcement.
He noted Mr. Biden was announcing the near-total ban at a time when Russia is pressing its brutal invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. and its allies are rushing weapons and other defensive assets to Kyiv.
“There’s compelling evidence that Russian forces are using explosive munitions, including land mines, in an irresponsible manner which is causing extensive harm to civilians and damage to vital civilian infrastructure there,” Mr. Brown said.
U.S. officials said the Korean exception is unique, owing to specific defense treaty obligations. All minefields in Korea or along the DMZ between the North and the South are under the control of South Korea.
U.S. forces last used anti-personnel land mines during the Gulf War. The White House’s decision to unilaterally restrict their use will have no impact on what happens in Moscow or Beijing, Mr. Maxwell said.
“We should be under no illusion that this ban is going to make it safer for civilians or the U.S. military,” he said. “Malign actors like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea will still employ these capabilities and far worse capabilities.”
He noted that most battlefield deaths and injuries in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan have been caused by improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs, which are not covered by the land mine ban.
The U.S. is believed to have an active stockpile of about 3 million anti-personnel land mines. Mr. Brown said the administration intends to destroy all of that inventory save for what is needed in Korea.
Dozens of countries and international groups condemned Mr. Trump’s 2020 decision to allow the manufacturing and use of anti-personnel land mines. At the time, Pentagon officials said they played important roles in denying adversaries access to key parts of the battlefield.
“These systems help protect defending forces from both enemy armor and dismounted threats and ensure units are not outflanked or overrun when under attack,” former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper wrote in a memo about the policy revision. “They obstruct and influence the enemy’s direction of movement, channeling enemy forces into zones in which U.S. forces can better concentrate overwhelming firepower.
There is no one-for-one substitute for anti-personnel land mines currently, but Mr. Brown at the State Department said: “it’s being worked on.”
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