Holding the Government Accountable

Lessons Learned: Using Landmines in a War with Iraq

by Rachel Stohl

Today, landmines have gained a reputation as indiscriminate tools of war, killing thousands of innocent civilians every year. The majority of countries in the world have signed the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty that prevents the use of landmines in conflicts around the world. The United States, however, does not participate in the Mine Ban Treaty. And, with the prospect of war in Iraq, the United States has an important policy decision to make: will it use landmines in military operations in Iraq?

The last time the United States actively used landmines was against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Any U.S. operation in Iraq will have to contend with landmines, both those already in the ground and any new mines that are laid. From an operational standpoint, the United States will have to determine the pros and cons of using landmines in military operations in Iraq. The United States must also consider the humanitarian impact of using landmines in the potential upcoming conflict. Iraq has an estimated 600,000 to 1 million internally displaced people, and that population will only grow and become more vulnerable if additional land in Iraq becomes unavailable due to landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). In addition, provision of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable and war-affected populations will be increasingly difficult if movement is restricted due to the presence of landmines.

Internationally, there are concerns over whether the United States will ask other countries to violate the terms of the Mine Ban Treaty by using mines in Iraq. For example, Qatar, which could be headquarters for future U.S. military action in Iraq, is a Mine Ban Treaty signatory, and allowing the United States to transfer mines across its borders for use in Iraq may put Qatar in direct violation of the terms of the Mine Ban Treaty.

A General Accounting Office (GAO) report dated September 2002 "Information on U.S. Use of Land Mines in the Persian Gulf War," requested by Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., examines the issues raised by landmine use in the 1991 Gulf War, which has immeasurable relevance to the questions of U.S. landmine use in Iraq today.

According to the report, during the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. landmine stockpile contained approximately 19 million landmines and U.S. forces took 2.2 million landmines with them to the Gulf theater. During U.S. military operations in the Gulf War, only self-destructing landmines were used and smart mine usage totaled approximately 118,000. The landmines used by U.S. forces in the Gulf War consisted of Gator CBU bombs containing anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines, RAAM artillery rounds containing anti-tank mines, and ADAM artillery rounds containing anti-personnel landmines. These would be the same kinds of mines that the United States would use in any upcoming operations in Iraq.

During the Gulf War, U.S. war-fighting doctrine included four reasons for usage of landmines in operations:

  1. "Protective minefields, whose purpose is to add temporary strength to weapons positions, or other obstacles;
  2. Tactical minefields, which are emplaced as part of an overall obstacle plan to stop, delay, and disrupt enemy attacks; reduce enemy mobility, channel enemy formations, block enemy penetrations, and protect friendly flanks;
  3. Point minefields, which are emplaced in friendly or uncontested areas and are intended to disorganize enemy forces or block an enemy counterattack; and
  4. Interdiction minefields, which are emplaced in enemy-held areas to disrupt lines of communication and separate enemy forces."

According to the GAO report, a senior U.S. force commander in the Gulf reported that "U.S. forces had no restrictive theater-wide or force-wide prohibitions on the employment of landmines; U.S. commanders understood their authority to use mines whenever their use would provide a tactical advantage; and U.S. commanders decided to use landmine or non-landmine munitions based on their determination as to which were best suited to accomplish assigned missions."

However, even with clear-cut rationales for using landmines commanders were fearful of fratricide and decreased battlefield mobility caused by landmines and their usage. These concerns were based on "the obsolescence of conventional U.S. mines and safety issues with both conventional and scatterable landmines…and concern that reporting, recording and, when appropriate, marking the hazard areas created by the placement of self-destruct landmines or dudfields were not always accomplished when needed." According to the GAO report, the self-destructing mines had a higher than expected dud rate during the Gulf War. The dud rate is reported to be 0.01 percent (other government studies have found RAAM landmines to have a dud rate of 7 percent and RAAM over 10 percent), which would have resulted in approximately 12 duds (based on the reported 118,000 mines deployed). However, during post-Gulf War clean-up operations, the contractor hired by the government of Kuwait to conduct ordnance disposal found 1,977 duds in one of seven Kuwait battlefield sectors. (DoD does not support these figures, but has not provided alternative ones to GAO).

U.S. troops were not immune to the dangers of landmines in the 1991 Gulf War. According to the GAO report, of the 1,364 U.S. casualties in the Gulf War, 81 (6 percent) were from landmines. These 81 casualties were not directly attributed to U.S. landmines, but rather to Iraqi or unknown types of landmines. If, however, unexploded ordnance (UXO) from cluster munitions or other UXO casualties are included, the number of U.S. soldiers killed or injured totals 177 casualties (13 percent). Army soldiers bore the brunt of landmines and UXO injuries with 164 (93 percent) casualties. There were also 12 Marines killed or injured and one Air Force soldier injured by explosions from landmines, UXO, or other cluster munitions during the 1991Gulf War. GAO reports that these casualties occurred as a result of assigned duties (36 percent), unauthorized handling of UXO (9 percent) and unknown circumstances (55 percent).

The utility of landmine usage in the 1991 Gulf War is unclear. According to the GAO report, "the services reported no evidence of enemy casualties, either killed or injured; enemy equipment losses, either destroyed or damaged; or enemy maneuver limitations result, directly or indirectly, from its employment of surface-laid scatterable Gator, ADAM, and RAAM landmines during the Gulf War."

The decision whether the United States will use landmines in Iraq will not be an easy one. Looking at current U.S. policy on landmines for insight on which way the decision might go does not provide any clear answers as the administration of President George W. Bush has not yet released it's own landmine policy.

Previously, U.S. landmine policy has been laid out in presidential directives. Currently, Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 48 outlines U.S. landmine policy and states "that the United States will unilaterally undertake not to use and to place in inactive stockpile status with intent to demilitarize by the end of 1999, all non-self-destructing anti-personnel landmines not needed for (a) training personnel engaged in demining and countermining operations and (b) defending the United States and its allies from armed aggression across the Korean demilitarized zone" as well as directing the Secretary of Defense to "undertake a program of research, procurement, and other measures need to eliminate the requirement for non-self-destructing anti-personnel landmines for training personnel engaged in demining and countermining operations and to defend the United States and its allies from armed aggression across the Korean demilitarized zone."

Further, the PDD "directs that this program have as an objective permitting both the United States and its allies to end reliance on antipersonnel landmines as soon as possible." PDD 64 "directs the Department of Defense to, among other things, (1) develop anti-personnel landmine alternatives to end the use of all anti-personnel landmines outside Korea, including those that self-destruct by the year 2003; (2) pursue aggressively the objective of having alternatives to anti-personnel landmines ready for Korea by 2006, including those that self-destruct; (3) search aggressively for alternatives to our mixed anti-tank landmine systems; (4) aggressively seek to develop and field alternatives to replace non-self-destructing anti-personnel landmines in Korea with the objective of doing so by 2006; and (5) actively investigate the use of alternatives to existing anti-personnel landmines, as they are developed, in place of the self-destructing/self-deactivating anti-personnel sub-munitions currently used in mixed anti-tank mine systems."

These two documents have governed U.S. landmine policy for the past several years. Thus far, DoD has spent over $900 million to complete the objectives laid out in PDDs 48 and 64. However, in May 2002, DoD informed GAO that the United States would be unable to meet these objectives. Therefore, the Bush administration has opened the door for landmine usage in any future operations in Iraq. But, before deciding to do so, it would behoove the administration to examine the lessons learned from previous landmine usage in Iraq and determine if the international, political, and human costs are really worth it.

Only time will tell if the United States will choose to use landmines in any future operations in Iraq. If the United States does choose to use these weapons, then particular safeguards must be used to ensure the safety of U.S. troops and to avoid serious injury or death to Iraqi civilians. After the 1991 Gulf War, reviews of U.S. use of landmines in battle occurred. The recommendations of these reports included that DoD:

  • Replace the current conventional landmines with modern, safer ones;
  • Add a feature to scatterable landmines that would allow them to be turned on and off, giving the landmines a long-term static capability and providing U.S. commanders with the ability to create cleared lanes for friendly passage when and were needed;
  • Develop submunitions with lower dud rates and develop self-destruct mechanisms for non-land-mine submunitions;
  • Consider the magnitude and location of UXO likely to be on the battlefield when deciding the number and mix of submunitions, precision-guided munitions, or other munitions to use and, when planning maneuver operations, avoid dudfield hazard areas or breach them with troops inside armored vehicles;
  • Develop training aides - such as manuals and working models of U.S. scatterable mines - to provide service members with the ability to recognize U.S. scatterable mines and other unexploded ordnance and the knowledge of the proper actions to take to safely avoid and/or deactivate/detonate explosive submunitions and to safely extract themselves from minefields or dudfields; and
  • Establish and standardize procedures for the reporting, recording, and when appropriate, marking of concentrations of submunition bomblets as hazard areas."

The U.S. military would be well served to follow these recommendations, but more importantly should eliminate landmines from its arsenal as soon as possible.