A North Korean soldier takes photos through the window at a meeting in which U.S. Army Gen Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was briefed in late 2012 at the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. (Defense Department photo)
A major change in U.S. policy on landmines should not affect the mines in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.
On Friday, the National Security Council announced that the U.S. government will neither acquire new landmines nor replace existing stockpiles. The U.S. also will pursue technological alternatives to landmines so that it can eventually join the Ottawa Convention, under which landmines are banned.
In the meantime, the U.S. military has enough landmines in its stockpiles to last 15 to 20 years, a senior defense official said Friday.
For years, the U.S. government has resisted efforts to ban landmines outright, citing a need for them to deter North Korea from crossing the DMZ into South Korea. While the U.S. government is changing its policy on landmines, it remains committed to defending South Korea, NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula presents unique challenges,” Hayden said in an email to Military Times on Friday. “Any changes to our landmine policy with respect to the Korean peninsula would be made only after close consultation with our South Korean ally.”
Hayden reiterated that the U.S. government is looking into safer technologies so that it eventually will no longer have to use landmines.
“As we are still actively investigating potential technological alternatives, we do not have more specific details at this time,” she said. “We are also, through our modeling and simulation effort, exploring alternative warfighting methods.”
One technological solution would be to perfect the kill switches on mines that render them inert after a certain period of time, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former commandant of the Army War College. Right now, the kill switches fail on 1 percent to 2 percent of mines, but that numbers goes up to 3 percent or 4 percent in mountainous terrain, where the mines often hit the ground at an angle.
“The problem with that is it’s very, very expensive,” Scales said. “We have millions — I don’t know how many millions — of artillery and rocket rounds in storage with this old technology. God only knows what it would take to do that.”
Another solution would be to stop using mines altogether by fitting rockets, artillery and mortar rounds with a guidance system — essentially turning them into smart bombs, he said. One challenge with that approach is that artillery rounds come out of the tube with such force that a guidance system would likely be damaged.
If the U.S. abandons the use of landmines entirely, it will be giving up a key tool for conventional wars, Scales said. Scattering landmines in front of approaching tanks would channel them into kill zones, where they can be destroyed by rockets fitted with cluster munitions.
“You literally obliterate them,” he said. “Everything dies — and you can do it within five seconds. No other munition in the world can do that. You can’t do that with regular artillery.”
On Friday, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement calling the effort to replace landmines with new technology “an expensive solution in search of a nonexistent problem.”
“Once again, the President makes an end-run around Congress and demonstrates his willingness to place politics above the advice of our military leaders,” McKeon said. “His announcement today is perfect for a feel-good press release but bad for the security of our men and women in uniform.
“Irresponsible land mine use by other countries has come at a high humanitarian price, but America isn’t part of that problem. Indeed, we do more than any other country to clean up these irresponsible weapons,” McKeon said, noting that Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “has long declared the responsible land mines we use are an ‘important tool in the arsenal of the Armed Forces of the United States.’ ”
McKeon said President Obama “owes our military an explanation for ignoring their advice and putting them at risk — all for a Friday morning press release.”