Land mines may serve their purpose as defensive weapons, but they are a scourge on the world. They kill and maim indiscriminately; a friendly soldier will trigger a buried mine just as easily as an enemy soldier. Worse, a civilian can trigger a mine days, weeks, or even years after the war ends.
The U.S. Army still uses land mines, but is now trying to build a version that would prevent civilian casualties. The service has invested more than $100 million in the Gator Landmine Replacement Program, which aims to replace unmanned, “dumb” land mines with a network of weapons monitored by U.S. troops to ensure they target only enemy forces.
The Indiscriminate Killer
Typical land mines consist of a metal body, high explosive charge, and a pressure switch. Mines are buried at a shallow depth, and once sufficient weight is placed on the pressure switch, it triggers the explosion. Smaller “anti-personnel mines” are triggered by the pressure an average person exerts on the ground, while larger anti-tank mines may take several hundred pounds to trigger. Other mines are triggered by a tripwire, while still other mines may be command detonated—that is, triggered by remote control.
Mines are not meant to destroy enemy forces all by themselves. Minefields slow down an invader’s advance, forcing them to slowly pick through a minefield, buying time for defenders to organize a defense. They can also full an enemy’s advance, forcing them to pick an unmined route—and walk right into an ambush. Minefields are dreaded for the uncertainty they create. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Allied forces during the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, famously said, “All it takes is one mine.”
But while they are generally considered “defensive” weapons, land mines leave a bloody legacy that endures long after the war. Each year, hundreds if not thousands of people living in war zones or former war zones trigger buried mines. According to the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, 23 civilians were killed or injured each day in 2016 by abandoned land mines worldwide, or 8,605 people per year.
An effort to ban the use of land mines, known informally as the Ottawa Treaty, was signed by 164 countries. The United States isn’t one of them. U.S. military commanders argue that mines are a crucial part of the American arsenal, particularly on the Korean peninsula, where mines would be expected to help slow a North Korean invasion.
A Human in the Loop
Now, the U.S. Army is attempting to create an Ottawa-friendly mine system that creates a networked weapon system. In 2016, the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal described the Gator Landmine Replacement (GLMR) Program like this:
“When an adversary walks through a networked munitions field, the systems sensor and communications capability will relay back to the Soldier that something is near the munition. A Soldier will then determine if it is friend or foe, and can choose to either detonate or not detonate an anti-personnel munition.”
Lt. Col. O’Neal Williams, the Product Manger GLMR, explained at the time:
“Gator Land Mine Replacement is focused on networked, protective obstacle munitions. Networked munitions contain a human-in-the-loop capability so that if a sensor is tripped, the Soldier has the ability to investigate the situation and discern whether the sensor was activated by a combatant, non-combatant, vehicle, or an animal. Once the Soldier determines what caused the alert, he or she has the ability to eliminate the threat or log the incident.”
From a military perspective, having a human in the loop isn’t overly burdensome. Contrary to popular belief, minefields are meant to be monitored, not sown and abandoned, because they’re meant to be laid in places the enemy is expected to show up. The human monitoring the networked munitions might do so remotely, via robotic ground vehicle, unmanned aerial vehicle, or the battlefield equivalent of a webcam.
One interesting question about the new Gator system: Is a networked munition system an entirely new weapons system? Consider such a system of anti-tank munitions emplaced in the path of an oncoming enemy tank force. Friendly forces monitoring the networked weapon could choose to let the tanks stream in and only detonate the munitions once the enemy is deep within the field, destroying tanks as they come within range. The only difference between a field of networked mines and artillery is that artillery requires nearby howitzers to drop munitions on the tanks. In this new system, the munitions are already on the battlefield, waiting to be detonated.