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The Arms Control Minefield

The unintended consequences of banning cluster bombs.

11:00 PM, Dec 9, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Now, consider the options the IDF-AF would have if submunitions were outlawed. The Hezbollah rocket sites would still be there, and the Israelis would still have to destroy them. Only now, they would have to use 250- or 500-lb bombs (guided or unguided, take your pick). Let us assume that the Israelis are every bit as good as the myth, and every bomb lands directly on the target. Since our rocket launcher is parked in an alley or side street between two houses, or perhaps in a schoolyard, we have to assume that those structures would be utterly destroyed--and other structures within a radius of several hundred meters as well. Whereas civilians were largely protected from cluster bombs as long as they stayed in their houses (and preferably in their basements), a house offers no protection from a near miss by even a 250-lb unitary bomb; everybody inside will be killed or injured. The net result of this "humane" reform is therefore a greater number of non-combatant casualties, and much greater collateral damage to buildings and infrastructure. This is why they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

For many of us, the Submunitions Convention is a case of déjà vu that brings to mind the equally misguided Ottawa Treaty banning the production, sale and use of anti-personnel landmines. It is tragic that millions of civilians, including many children, have been maimed by landmines, but that is largely the fault of armies that, either through carelessness or malice, misuse what remain--despite the protestations of Angelina Jolie or even respected military commentators like the late COL David Hackworth--an extremely valuable weapon in a military commander's arsenal.

Mines are not really intended to cause casualties--historically, mines account for under 5 percent of all battlefield deaths and injuries. Rather, they are intended to hinder movement and channel it into prepared "kill zones" covered by more lethal weapons. That is, if one is defending a large area with a small force, mines can be used to supplement terrain to protect one's flanks from turning, as well as to ensure that the enemy either sticks to the roads (which are covered by fire), or moves into a prepared ambush. All minefields can be breached, given time, which is why they must also be covered by fire to suppress engineers trying to remove the mines. Because engineers generally work on foot, anti-personnel mines must be sewn together with anti-vehicle mines (the former weigh 1-2 kg, the latter as much as 15 kg).

Now, David Hackworth made a big fuss about banning anti-personel mines, but Hackworth's experience was in Vietnam, a very different kind of war; he was also dealing with a very different kind of army than the one we field today. Though there was much talk about "friendly fire" casualties due to some idiot walking into our own minefields, Hackworth certainly wasn't complaining when he laid out AP mines and Claymores to secure his perimeters. In fact, minefields sometimes were the only things keeping U.S. firebases from being infiltrated and overrun. For the same reason, the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea is lined by a belt of several hundred thousand mines of all types: not only does this keep North Korean infiltrators from flitting across the line at will, the mine belt would also impose significant delays on North Korean forces in the event of a full-blown invasion, allowing the United States and South Korea to mobilize their forces. The mine belt would also force North Korean mechanized units to stick to roads and other well-defined corridors, where they would be extremely vulnerable to tanks, aircraft and artillery. As long as mines have this kind of utility, efforts to ban them will remain futile. No weapon has ever been banned by an international convention unless it was already obsolete (e.g., the soft lead bullet) or the parties had already decided that the weapon was more trouble than it was worth (chemical weapons).

Instead of banning mines, the international community should look to real cause of civilian mine casualties--the use of mines by unlawful combatant groups that don't care about civilian casualties anyway (I include the Soviet Union among these unlawful combatants, since they deployed in Afghanistan mines that were designed to look like children's toys), and the use of mines by badly trained armies that do not follow the well established procedures for laying minefields, including marking the extent of the fields, drawing diagrams of the fields so that they may be traversed, and removing the mines once their tactical utility has ended. We do all of those things; most of our enemies do not. Technology is helping to reduce the potential for civilian casualties due to "lost" mines. As with submunitions, most of our mines now have electronic fuses that operate off a battery with a very limited life. When the battery dies, the mine becomes inert. You would really have to work hard to set one off after that point. Since mines can be made from just about anything (the VC used a wooden box, a lump of C4 plastic explosive, a 7.62mm rifle cartridge and a nail), banning mines will really only affect Western standing armies, which for the most part use their mines in a responsible manner. It does nothing at all to inhibit people like al Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah, who can always make their own, minus all the safety features.

But cracking down on the al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the myriad lesser nasty boys who plague the world would require something more than thinking pious thoughts and putting one's signature on a meaningless piece of paper. And while the humanitarians of the world seem willing to do anything to raise awareness of the threat of mines and submunitions, they seem to have little stomach for tracking down and punishing those who deliberately use these weapons to target civilians.

Stuart Koehl is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.