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US and Land-Mine Ban

Pentagon's legitimate concerns should be addressed first

National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has just sent a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont pledging that the United States will join the international treaty banning antipersonnel land mines by 2006, provided the Pentagon can develop suitable alternatives by then.

Mr. Berger hopes that, as part of the deal, Mr. Leahy will agree to support a bill lifting the current moratorium on US land mine use. The Clinton administration wants the moratorium ended because Defense Secretary William Cohen and Joint Chiefs chairman Henry Shelton believe it constitutes an unacceptable risk to American troops.

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But what might really replace antipersonnel land mines, both those that stand alone and those designed to prevent enemy soldiers from disarming larger antitank mines nearby? Despite the high profile of the anti-land-mine crusade, the question has received little public attention.

Promising alternatives to land mines do indeed exist. However, none are likely to be as militarily effective as the weapons they would replace. Advocates of the Ottawa Convention, as the antipersonnel land-mine treaty is known, should concede this point. They should hinge their argument instead on the fact that US and allied military superiority is now so overwhelming that we can afford to give up this horrible weapon in the interest of delegitimizing its use worldwide. They should also be less morally indignant at Washington, given the serious efforts the US makes to clear minefields that are killing people today.

One option for the Pentagon is to replace lethal antipersonnel mines with nonlethal ones that might incapacitate enemy troops by dispersing tear gas, releasing sticky foam, blaring out intense sound waves, or otherwise immobilizing those who activated them.

Such contraptions would be more expensive to build than simple explosives, however. They would put less fear in the hearts of enemy soldiers than lethal mines. In many cases they might only slow down, rather than stop, enemy troops from reaching antitank devices or the front lines of battle. And it is not clear they could be made small enough to remain "stealthy"; enemy troops might be able to just walk around them.

Another option could couple small sensors in the ground with remote unmanned weapons. Once the sensors were triggered, the weapons could fire at targets in their vicinity. This type of system might be difficult to deploy quickly in the heat of battle, however. Moreover, when the weapons were fired, they might destroy some of the sensors and communications systems, as well as any nearby antitank mines. There could also be a delay between activation of the sensor and the arrival of ordnance on the target, possibly giving enemy soldiers a chance to disarm or destroy antitank mines and escape.

Nevertheless, the land mine treaty makes sense for the US. The US military is most convinced of the importance of land mines in Korea, where masses of North Korean troops are poised near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) ready to attack with little warning. However, detailed analysis shows that the Korean military balance is much more favorable to allied forces than commonly believed.

EVEN leaving aside questions about the battle readiness of the impoverished North Korean military, the South Koreans have had 45 years to prepare defensive positions below the DMZ. They also possess tremendous technological advantages over the North, and would be supported by US air power as well as the 2nd Infantry Division (with many reinforcements to follow).

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Against this defense, any North Korean attack would almost surely look like the ill-fated and bloody offensives of World War I trench warfare.

We can sign the Ottawa Convention on these grounds. But it is a difficult judgment call. The Pentagon's concerns are real, and those who deny that land mines retain any useful military role, or that they will be easy to replace, are wrong.

* Michael O'Hanlon is a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. His most recent book is "How To Be a Cheap Hawk" (Brookings, 1998).

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