Along Came a Spider

When representatives from more than 100 nations gathered in Geneva late last month to celebrate a decade of international cooperation to rid the world of landmines, the United States was conspicuously absent. Indeed, the United States has always opposed those international efforts -- and it is now on the cusp of actively reviving its own use of landmines.

In 1997, U.S. president Bill Clinton shocked his allies and the world by refusing to sign on to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty -- arguing that its parameters were too restrictive -- despite the urging of such senior military advisers as General Norman Schwarzkopf, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General David Jones, and former Supreme NATO Commander General John Gavin to sign. The treaty -- which by 2006 has been ratified by 151 countries -- prohibits the use, production, stockpiling or exportation of antipersonnel landmines and mandates that countries clear their territories of mines and destroy stockpiles. In 1999, when the treaty came into force, the United States unceremoniously took its seat among the other holdouts, which included Iran, China, and Cuba.

Despite its refusal to join Ottawa, the United States hasn't used landmines in the field since the 1991 Gulf War and hasn't produced them since 1997. Under U.S. policy set by Clinton, the United States would ratify the treaty by 2006 if suitable alternatives to antipersonnel mines could be developed, a commitment which was subsequently abandoned in 2004 by President Bush. “Landmines still have a valid and essential role in protecting United States forces in military operations,” the State Department said in a February 2004 policy statement.

Today, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports that some 80 million landmines remain in the ground in at least 80 countries. The Red Cross has estimated that every 20 minutes, someone somewhere steps on a mine. And while 13 countries still produce them, only three -- Myanmar, Russia and Nepal -- are currently deploying them in the field. The United States, it seems, would like to join them. As a legacy of Clinton's promise, the Pentagon has spent the last decade searching for a kinder, gentler landmine -- and it now hopes to convince Congress that it's found one.

As Foreign Policy in Focus reported in late August, the Pentagon has requested over $1 billion over the next five years for the production of “alternatives to antipersonnel mines,” including mines based on so-called “man-in-the-loop” technology. This technology places mine detonation in the hands of a soldier via remote control. But, crucially, the new weapons also feature an optional automatic setting -- or “battle override” -- that allows them to operate just like conventional landmines. So far, the Pentagon has funded the development of two such systems: the Matrix (which is actually not a mine at all but a remote control system for use with a conventional mine), and the Spider XM-7 Landmine System.

According to its specification sheet, each Spider can be loaded with up to six separate payloads or adapted to work with a standard Claymore, and “[w]hen all components are in place, the man-in-the-loop discriminates between combatants and civilians” (emphasis added). But as reported in 2004 by Army AL&T Magazine, a publication of the Army's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, “If enemy presence is already known or expected, the operator can command the field to operate in an autonomous mode in which individual Spider munitions detect, report, and engage targets immediately.” Army AL&T does not mention who would be in charge of making that determination, or upon what criteria it would be based.

Scott Stedjan, national coordinator of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, summed up the technology: “After spending hundreds of millions of dollars researching alternatives to antipersonnel mines, the administration has instead produced another conventional landmine with a switch.” According to Human Rights Watch, Congress budgeted more than $300 million to produce 907 Spider systems and another $11.8 million for continued research. But in a last-minute decision at the end of 2005, legislators halted production of the weapon, urging the Army to review the “indiscriminate effects” of the new weapon.

Nonetheless, on June 30, 2006, two companies -- Minnesota-based Alliant Techsystems and Massachusetts' Textron Systems -- were awarded a $31 million contract to begin initial production of the Spider. According to the Defense Department, that project is expected to be complete by November 2007.

Stedjan says that since the congressionally mandated review has not been completed, it's unlikely the weapons will be deployed. “The DoD cannot pursue full-rate production until a report is submitted,” he says. “Basically that means they can make a prototype and test it. They won't be able to make any weapons that can be deployed.” Whether they are deployed or not, the new mines will join the current U.S. stockpile -- already the third largest landmine arsenal in the world after China and Russia, consisting of roughly 10.4 million antipersonnel mines and 7.5 million anti-vehicle mines.

The U.S. Army has already deployed a small number of Matrix systems to Iraq, but the Pentagon is not commenting on whether they have been put to use yet. Without a clear U.S. policy on the use of antipersonnel devices, there's no assurance on how exactly they'll be employed.

In March 2005, the Landmine Survivors Network issued an Action Alert on the Matrix, expressing concern over adding another mine to the 30 types already found in Iraq. The group questioned the reliability of soldier identification, a valid concern in places like Iraq where combatants are usually not in uniform.

“The Pentagon has not been adequately forthcoming on the technical aspects of this system, including the identification issue,” Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, says of man-in-the-loop technology. Many critics say the concept is just a marketing ploy designed to put a kinder, gentler face on an internationally despised piece of weaponry. And some of those critics can be found in positions of power. On August 1, Senators Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter introduced the “Victim-Activated Landmine Abolition Act of 2006,” which would outlaw the procurement of any victim-activated weapon, including those that double as man-in-the-loop weapons.

Leahy has long been a vocal opponent of the use of landmines and has worked for nearly 20 years to push through legislation limiting their use. The new legislation would ban the United States from purchasing or funding the development of new victim-activated landmines. It would not, however, prohibit the deployment of weapons the United States has already procured, and it does not mandate the clearing of mines. Despite its shortcomings, anti-mine activists are calling it a step in the right direction.

While Leahy has commended the Defense Department's efforts to advance man-in-the-loop technology, a spokesperson from his office told the Prospect that the inclusion of a battle override function is “completely inconsistent with the purpose of the program to end the use of indiscriminate mines.”

Leahy's spokesperson said he expects that once lawmakers are educated about the bill, it will receive ample support. But he said opposition is likely from the Defense Department. “The Defense Department never supports any limits on any weapon,” he said. “Starting with efforts to ban poison gas, up until today with the debate over landmines, we have encountered opposition from them.” The Leahy/Specter bill has been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee, but isn't expected to come up for deliberation until January 2007.

"The United States shouldn't be making and using weapons that can't discriminate between a soldier and a civilian,” as Goose put it in an August 1 statement. "The U.S. should be moving closer to the community of nations that have banned antipersonnel mines, not farther away."

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based writer and reporter who has written for In These Times and The American Prospect Online, among other publications.

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