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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1

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Marines unloading deactivated antitank and antipersonnel landmines for destruction in Cuba, U.S. Department of Defense photo by Ronald L. Heppner, U.S. Navy New Technologies Hold Promise for Eliminating Antipersonnel Landmines

Millions of landmines remain buried in old battlefields around the world, an unfortunate legacy of war. Over the past 25 years, they have killed or maimed tens of thousands of civilians and made it difficult to return mined fields to everyday use after conflicts end.

Concern about the continuing risks landmines pose led to the Ottawa Convention, an international agreement that seeks to ban the types of mines that explode automatically on contact and to destroy those now in military inventories. But because they still provide a unique and important element of protection for military forces, the Clinton administration indicated that the United States would not sign until alternatives could be developed that offered the U.S. military an equivalent system for protection.

A committee of the National Research Council recently examined this issue and found several promising technologies under development that could offer similar or greater tactical advantages to antipersonnel landmines and reduce the risk to civilians. And with sufficient funding, these alternatives could replace some of the U.S. military's mines by 2006 -- the target date set for making a decision about signing the treaty.

Antipersonnel landmines generally are used in two ways -- on their own against ground troops and as part of a mixed system to prevent antitank mines from being disabled by ground troops. An alternative for stand-alone use could be ready in the next five years if the military steps up funding, research, and development, the committee said. But no suitable substitute for mixed systems will be available by 2006 under current military production timelines.

The most viable alternative for use as a stand-alone system is a combination of sensor technologies and explosive munitions, now under development by the U.S. Department of Defense. Known as the nonself-destructing alternative (NSD-A), this system would allow a soldier on watch to view a hand-held video display through which sensors would signal when an intruder had entered a protected area. The soldier could then choose whether to set off the explosive, placing the decision for detonation into human hands rather than having the mine explode on contact.

Because the sensor feature makes this new technology far superior both militarily and with respect to humanitarian concerns, the committee recommended that production be pursued aggressively to ensure its availability by 2006. But questions about use of a software option, known as the battlefield override switch, have resulted in delays since the option would render the system noncompliant with the Ottawa Convention. The software would permit the operator to automate the system under certain circumstances, allowing the mine to explode on contact. Therefore, the committee recommends that two options, one with and one without the switch, should be developed simultaneously to prepare for a presidential decision concerning the treaty.

Should the United States agree to the Ottawa Convention before the prospective alternatives are in place, a transition period may be needed during which the current arsenal of antipersonnel landmines are temporarily retained, the committee said.

In the meantime, production of the "remote area-denial artillery munition," a technology already under development, should be halted and funding redirected toward other options that may be compliant with the international treaty, the committee recommended. This technology combines an artillery-delivered antitank mine and an artillery-delivered antipersonnel mine into one projectile. It would not comply with the Ottawa Convention and appears to be no more effective than using the two systems in tandem, the report notes.

The use of nonlethal weapons to temporarily immobilize or incapacitate the enemy on the battlefield also should continue to be investigated, the committee said. Although such weapons cannot completely replace antipersonnel landmines, they can be useful in situations when the threat is unclear or when large populations of noncombatants are in the vicinity.   -- Barbara Rice

Alternative Technologies to Replace Antipersonnel Landmines. Committee on Alternative Technologies to Replace Antipersonnel Landmines, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences and Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2001, 140 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07349-9; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $40.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by George Bugliarello, chancellor, Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, N.Y. The U.S. Department of Defense funded the study.

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences