In this still image made from video taken Sept. 7, 2015 provided by the Syrian Center for Demining and Rehabilitation, a volunteer deminer takes a landmine from the ground in Daraa, Syria.
In this still image made from video taken Sept. 7, 2015 provided by the Syrian Center for Demining and Rehabilitation, a volunteer deminer takes a landmine from the ground in Daraa, Syria.

WASHINGTON - United States military commanders can again use landmines in conflict zones, as President Donald Trump supported the change after a yearlong study concluded U.S. forces were unnecessarily vulnerable to attacks from a range of adversaries, from major powers to terrorist organizations.

The White House announced the change Friday, canceling rules prohibiting the use of landmines in areas outside the Korean Peninsula, arguing the self-imposed ban put U.S. troops “at a severe disadvantage.”

“The president is unwilling to accept this risk to our troops,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The president will continue to support and equip our troops so that they will forever remain the greatest fighting force in the world.”

The U.S. abandoned the use of landmines outside of the Korean Peninsula in 2014 and began destroying its stockpiles under the direction of then-President Barack Obama.

Obama also pledged to find ways for the U.S. to fully comply with the Ottawa Convention, which banned the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines in 1997.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Italian Minister of Defense Lorenzo Guerini take part in a joint press conference, Jan. 31, 2020, at the Pentagon in Washington.

According the White House, the new policy will authorize military commanders “in exceptional circumstances, to employ advanced, nonpersistent landmines specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians and partner forces.”

Speaking earlier Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper argued the military needs landmines to “shape the battlefield” and protect U.S. forces.

“We want to make sure we have all the tools in our toolkit that are legally available and effective to ensure our success,” Esper said at a news conference with Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini.

Strategic environment

Defense officials defended the decision to reintroduce landmines into the U.S. defensive arsenal, arguing the strategic environment has changed since 2014, again making landmines a “vital tool.”

“Ultimately, they serve as a force multiplier, helping U.S. forces to fight effectively against enemy threats, which may be numerically superior or capable of exploiting operational or tactical advantages over U.S. forces,” according to a Pentagon memorandum signed Friday by Esper.

Defense officials said they could envision using landmines in a variety of theaters against a range of adversaries, including powers like Russia and China, neither of which has signed the landmine ban treaty.

Manda Bay Kenya

Officials also said landmines could be used to protect U.S. forces from terror groups such as Islamic State and al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate that overran the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya in early January, killing three Americans.

At the time of Obama’s 2014 announcement, Pentagon officials said the U.S. had not produced any landmines since the late 1990s and that since then, the only use of a landmine came in 2002 in Afghanistan.

But defense officials Friday said the U.S. retains enough of an inventory of so-called “smart landmines” that there is no need to restart production immediately. And while there have been discussions about where the landmines could be used, officials said as of yet there had been no requests to actually deploy them.

“We’ve taken great care and consideration,” Esper said. “In everything we do, we also want to make sure that these instruments, in this case, landmines, also take into account both the safety of employment and the safety to civilians and others after a conflict.”

The new policy calls for all landmines to self-destruct within 30 days and “possess a backup self-deactivation feature.” It also said some landmines could be designed to remain active for as little as two hours.

The chance that any of the newly authorized landmines could fail to self-destruct or deactivate is 6 in 1 million, officials said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., departs the Capitol as the Senate finishes its work for the day in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, in Washington, Jan. 24, 2020.

Human rights groups

Yet despite such assurances, human rights groups blasted the U.S. decision.

“These are not advanced weapons. They’re inherently indiscriminate weapons,” Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, told VOA.

“They’re deployed out of aircraft bombs or out of rocket projectiles or artillery shells. And they spread out over a very wide area and they’re live once they land on the ground,” he said. “If a civilian comes along, then they’re going to be blown up.”

According the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 6,897 people — the majority of them civilians — were killed or injured by landmines in 2018 — up from 3,457 in 2013.

“There is a reason why the use of antipersonnel landmines is illegal: They can’t distinguish between fighters and ordinary people, and often continue to kill and maim for years after conflicts end,” Amnesty International USA spokesperson Adotei Akwei said in a statement Thursday, in advance of the U.S. policy shift.

“This decision is consistent with an administration that has proven itself indifferent to human lives and suffering,” Akwei said.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy also raised concerns, saying to his knowledge, no lawmakers had been consulted.

“Although the United States is not among the 164 countries that have renounced anti-personnel mines, we have consistently sought to limit their production, export, and use,” Leahy said in a statement.

“The example we set has global ramifications,” he said.