The return of mine warfare

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; originally published in German). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

For a long time, landmines have been considered yesterday’s weaponry in modern armies – yet still good enough for warfare in the Third World. But the conflict with Russia makes them, once again, the weapon of choice for the Western military.

Warning sign in a minefield near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

Warning sign in a minefield near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

Lithuania 2026 – German army pioneer drones whirr over the land and place mines. Time is pressing, because the attack columns of Russian tanks are approaching rapidly. There are thousands of them. Minefields are in place to intercept the steel avalanche. The scene comes from the current German Armed Forces memorandum “Wie kämpfen Landstreitkräfte künftig?” (How will land forces fight in the future?). Their reflections describe an emerging trend in Western military powers: the long-proscribed weapon, the landmine, is facing a renaissance.

Once, mines were an essential weapon for Western armies; especially for the German Armed Forces, as a front-line army to the Warsaw Pact. Minefields were to help in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union to bring their tank legions to a halt. From a NATO point of view, mines have a defensive character. Even today, the German Armed Forces have more than 55,000 anti-tank mines from this time in storage. But after the Cold War, intervention operations in weak states became the dominant form of Western warfare. Here, mines offered little added value. They disappeared from the concepts of military planners.

In the public perception, mines were also a symbol of a particularly insidious type of warfare, because they are usually unrecognisable. Third World countries in particular continued to use this means of war in the 1990s. The problem: even after the end of an armed conflict, mines remained dangerous. Because they were usually not removed. Mine explosions killed and mutilated thousands of civilians. The Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel mines, which came into force in 1999, is therefore still regarded as a milestone in international humanitarian law.

But now, Western armies are putting more emphasis on mines as a weapon. The NATO-Russia conflict since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea is therefore crucial. The Eastern European NATO members fear the following scenario: in the first phase, disinformation campaigns and propaganda make the population insecure. In the second phase, Russia intervenes on a large scale with its armed forces. Minefields, according to NATO military planners, would be the best way to stop and destroy opposing forces.

Public opinion in Poland is that the Ottawa Convention is a relic from a past epoch of history. The Polish forces are very unhappy with the Ottawa Convention because they had to destroy their landmines, possibly several million of them. — Marek Swierczynski.

“Poland’s military is very unhappy about the limitations of the Ottawa Convention” said Marek Swierczynski, a defence expert at the consulting firm Polityka Insight in Warsaw. The Ottawa Convention bans classic anti-personnel mines. Those kinds of mines are only intended for use against people and are “victim-triggered”. For example, the mine is detonated by someone stepping on it, whether they are a soldier or civilian. Moreover, according to the convention, mines must not have any clearing protection, i.e. no hidden triggering mechanism, which would make it difficult for the enemy to clear minefields. Convention signatory Poland announced at the end of November 2016 that it had destroyed all its stocks of such anti-personnel mines.

But Poland is already restocking with the permitted mine types. Among other things, the local company Belma in May 2017 ordered 300 coastal mines against landing crafts and anti-tank mines. The Poles are focusing on the eastern border with Belarus. The wide plain there only has sparse forests and a few rivers that channel the movements of mechanised units. With a massive tank advance from there, Russia’s army could reach Warsaw in a few days.

Poland’s armed forces would also like a million units of a standardised “NATO anti-invasion mine”. This was the Polish delegation’s demand this year at a symposium of NATO pioneers at the Military Engineering Centre of Excellence of the Alliance in Ingolstadt. Details about this are not yet publicly known.

Crowdsweeper is a drone that can scan an area from the air and mark any possible mine. It searches for metal objects with its built-in metal detector. Once the area is marked, a specialist can enter the area to defuse the mines. In addition, Crowdsweeper records and stores all collected data. This makes the search for mines not only faster, but also safer.

Crowdsweeper is a drone that can scan an area from the air and mark any possible mine. It searches for metal objects with its built-in metal detector. Once the area is marked, a specialist can enter the area to defuse the mines. In addition, Crowdsweeper records and stores all collected data. This makes the search for mines not only faster, but also safer.

In the meantime, NATO and partner countries actively discuss mine concepts. The Alliance does not want to comment on this request. In addition, cooperation is beginning already with non-NATO countries. For example, the Netherlands and Finland want to develop modern detonators for their old landmines. The goal is to create explosive devices that can be activated and deactivated as desired.

Finland in particular is dedicated to the development of new mines. The country has a more than 1,000 km-long border with Russia. An endless lowland with hardly any natural obstacles to secure. Therefore, mine warfare for the convention signer Finland remained important even after the Cold War. While Germany’s defence companies abandoned the landmine market segment in the 1990s, Finnish companies like Forcit are still producing them.

“It always makes sense to stay innovative to improve our on-land combat capabilities. With the industry, our armed forces are currently testing a new mine model”, said Jouko Tuloislea of ​​the Materials Department of the Finnish Ministry of Defence. The new mine is said to fight infantry most effectively by rising and exploding its fragmenting warhead from above the enemy. The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention would not affect the new mine, the Finns are sure. That is the crucial point, from their point of view. The new development will not be “victim-triggered”; a “man in the loop” will make the decision to ignite them. In other words, a soldier monitors the mines. He detonates them by remote control only when he can verify enemy troops.

The German armed forces also want to go in this direction. Currently, the planning office of the German Armed Forces is examining a “system with the ability to inhibit and channel movements”. That’s what the German army wants. An essential part of this would be a new generation mine. With a scaleable explosive effect, these could be ignite from a distance. Depending on need, a tank could be completely destroyed or just tipped it up so that it stays lying there and blocks advancing units. Designated personnel would control the mines with sensors such as drones from a distance and trigger them in the desired strength. This would allow “opposing vehicles and/or dismounted shooters to be fought,” the army responded.

Mine laying system 85 at the Information Training Land Operations 2017 of the German Armed Forces (photo: Florian Gärtner/photothek).

Mine laying system 85 at the Information Training Land Operations 2017 of the German Armed Forces (photo: Florian Gärtner/photothek).

Even if the new mine is once again intended to kill soldiers, it would be compliant with the Ottawa Convention, which Germany has signed. “Such a system, if it is genuinely designed so that a person makes the decision as to whether the weapon is activated or not, will be in conformity with the convention”, is the assessment of Thomas Küchenmeister, formerly head of the action alliance Landmine.de, which works towards a ban on anti-personnel mines.

In fact, the Ottawa Convention explicitly prohibits only mines that trigger automatically; remote-fired mines are not included in this description. This gap is used by states to armour themselves with new mine types. For today’s technical possibilities, the convention, into effect since 1999, is outdated. Serious political efforts to adapt the convention do not yet exist.

If it were up to the German military, they would like to have the new mines including sensors and control unit by 2025. “Such a system is not available on the world market and would have to be developed”, said a spokesman for the army. What makes mines interesting again for the German Armed Forces: the increased use of this cheap mass war technology could take pressure off the meagre fighting force of the German armed forces. According to their memorandum “How will land forces fight in the future?” The “missing mass” of soldiers is the army planner’s main concern when dealing with an opponent like Russia. In battle scenarios with such a military power, entire battalions – that is, hundreds of men – can be eradicated within minutes.

The entry of the German Armed Forces into modern mine warfare is still uncertain. The political arena must give the final blessing. There, the sensitive topic of a new mine warfare is likely to lead to debates – with an uncertain outcome. First of all, the German Armed Forces must be satisfied with relatively minor improvements. In their depots, the troop still has the 85 mine laying system (MVS85), named after its 1985 introduction year. In order to be able to train in mine warfare once more, the German Armed Forces currently brings the MVS85 back into shape. By the end of last year, four of the MVS85 were reactivated. According to Thomas Wiegold, two of them are in the Pioneer training centre in Ingolstadt and two others in the Tank Pioneer Batallion 130 in Minden. The reactivation of further systems is planned, as is a successor system until 2025 (Thomas Wiegold, “Wieder da: Mörser und Minenleger“, Augen geradeaus!, 01.11.2017).

• • •

Info-Box: The directional fragmentation devices 96 of the Swiss Armed Forces
Until 1989, Switzerland had a whole arsenal of mines, such as the light mine 49, the anti-tank mine 53, the anti-personnel mine 59 and the spring mine 63 and 64, which were all retired. With the increased agility of the troops, these mines increasingly lost importance for the Swiss Armed Forces. After 1989, they still had the anti-tank mine 60 (decommissioned since 2002), the anti-tank mine 88 and the horizontal splitter mine 90, in which, however, the use of tripwire was forbidden, and which was renamed “directional fragmentation devices 96” (light/heavy) (see picture on the right).

By the end of 1997, the 3 million anti-personnel mines of the Swiss Armed Forces were destroyed. At the same time, Switzerland has signed the Ottawa Convention and was one of the first states to ratify it. Contrary to the press release issued by the Federal Department of Defence, however, the Swiss Government and the authorities have not taken on the leading role in international efforts to ban landmines in accordance with their humanitarian tradition and their role as depositary state of the Geneva Conventions. (Martin Dahinten, “Die Schweiz und die Ächtung der Personenminen“, Bulletin 2003 zur schweizerischen Sicherheitspolitik, Forschungsstelle für Sicherheitspolitik der ETH Zürich, S. 105-27).

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, International, International law, Security Policy, Switzerland, Technology.

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