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160 Nations Ban These Weapons. The U.S. Now Embraces Them.


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, which came into office pledging to end “endless wars,” has now embraced weapons prohibited by more than 160 countries, and is readying them for future use. Cluster bombs and antipersonnel land mines, deadly explosives known for maiming and killing civilians long after the fighting ended, have become integral to the Pentagon’s future war plans — but with little public rationale offered for where and why they would be used.

These new policies, endorsed by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, can be traced to 2017 when the Pentagon chief at the time, Jim Mattis, was drafting a military strategy that named Russia and China as the United States’ great power rivals. Both have significant ground forces, and mines historically have been used to deny an adversary’s troops the ability to advance on the battlefield.

In a news conference on Monday, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said that the policy change “was the result of an extensive conversation” with different departments of the executive branch. It is intended “to provide the commanders on the ground nonpersistent munitions that are necessary for mission success in major contingencies in extreme or exceptional circumstances,” he said.

Mr. Hoffman declined to specify who had requested the policy change.

Former Defense Department officials said the debate about reintroducing land mines and other so-called area-denial weapons came to a head in 2017 as the administration analyzed Russia’s rapid invasion and annexation of Crimea.

That November, Mr. Mattis nullified a 2008 memo that suspended the use of almost all cluster weapons and directed the destruction of the current stockpile. Those weapons, built to fight World War III with the Soviet Union, were failure-prone, and gained infamy for killing and wounding civilians as well as American troops.

The Pentagon has been unable to articulate the need for these types of weapons, but industrial lines once thought extinct at defense firms are returning. That is partly because of lobbying efforts by retired senior military officers like Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general who served as an adviser to Mr. Mattis on overhauling infantry combat. But his argument was based, in part, on a flawed understanding of the effectiveness of cluster munitions in past conflicts, especially the 1991 Gulf war, where analysis afterward found high failure rates and little evidence they had deterred Iraqi forces to the extent at first believed.

As of October 2019, the Army had paid $11.5 million to Northrop Grumman and $23.3 million to Textron for the development of new anti-vehicle mines, according to officials at Picatinny Arsenal, an Army weapons research and development center in New Jersey. At that time, the total value of the two contracts was estimated at nearly $60 million.

The Pentagon’s effort to look to the future has put the military on a path that harkens back to the Cold War, when victory relied on being able to place explosives across broad swathes of ground to limit the enemy’s ability to move across the battlefield.

Some of these weapons — including land mines and cluster bombs — had been rejected by many nations.

In 1997, more than 120 countries signed the Ottawa Convention banning antipersonnel land mines that explode indiscriminately. Notably, the United States was not among them, citing a need to use these mines along the border between North and South Korea, and it is not among the 164 nations that are now party to the treaty.

“How can these policies be justified knowing that so many people have decided that these weapons have no place in war fighting and what these weapons do to people all over the world, including American service members?” asked Rachel Stohl, an arms control expert at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research organization. “It’s mind-boggling.”

The Trump administration’s abolishment of past policies that limited the development and use of these weapons has already drawn condemnation from some of the United States’ closest allies in Europe, further fraying strained relations.

The European Union said in a statement this week that the use of antipersonnel land mines “anywhere, anytime, and by any actor remains completely unacceptable.”

That came in response to an announcement by the White House last week that it would reverse longstanding policies that restricted the use of antipersonnel land mines. Under a 2014 measure by the Obama administration, the use of the weapons — small explosive charges that are usually buried in the ground and detonated when stepped upon — had been limited to the Korean Peninsula.

The moves were only the latest challenges to America’s traditional alliances. President Trump has turned his back on Kurdish allies in Iraq and Syria, threatened to pull troops from South Korea, hinted that he would exit the mutual defense agreement with Japan and even discussed pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Newer generations of American mines are supposed to self-destruct after a preset amount of time, but have failed to do so in combat conditions. Pentagon officials have yet to explain how the new antipersonnel land mines they wish to use would differ technologically from those.

“What’s really troubling is that, in a way, this gives a green light to others who would be less responsible using these weapons,” Ms. Stohl said.

In the era before precision-guided weapons, unguided cluster munitions — which break open over a target and dispense a number of smaller “submunitions” over a wide area — were seen as a way to make up for inaccurate bombs or artillery fire. Now that laser-guided and GPS-guided weapons are the norm in United States and NATO airstrikes, military officials and humanitarian rights groups no longer see “area attack” weapons like cluster bombs as necessary. The Pentagon has not addressed exactly why it believes cluster weapons are still needed, except for citing their perceived use in a war with North Korea.

American forces last used land mines and cluster munitions in large quantities during the 1991 Gulf war, and cleanup efforts in Kuwait and Iraq to find and destroy unexploded ordnance of both types continue today. Since 1993, the United States has spent $3.4 billion to demine and eradicate unexploded ordnance in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where civilians still are killed by the remnants left over from the Vietnam conflict. That figure does not include spending to clean up unexploded weapons — including from cluster bombs — on disused military practice ranges, including those on the island of Kaho’olawe in Hawaii and on Vieques in Puerto Rico.

Sections of military bombing and artillery ranges where cluster weapons have been used are considered so hazardous that only bomb disposal personnel may enter. Many have been marked as permanently contaminated, and are off-limits entirely.

The American military’s recent moves to make land mines and cluster weapons easier to use have elicited widespread criticism.

“The convention has long professed that any perceived or limited military utility of antipersonnel mines is grossly outweighed by the humanitarian consequences of their use,” said Juan Carlos Ruan, who serves as a director of the Ottawa Convention — commonly referred to as the Mine Ban Treaty. “There is no such thing as ‘responsible use of antipersonnel mines.’ ”

Some limits on conventional arms remain, including on incendiary substances like white phosphorous and napalm. Their use is restricted in areas where civilians are present, but otherwise permissible against enemy personnel. American warplanes dropped 750-pound napalm bombs in limited numbers in the 1991 Gulf war, as well as in Afghanistan and during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. American artillery units have recently fired white phosphorous-filled shells in Syria and Iraq. The accord limiting how such weapons may be used in warfare is included in the Convention on Certain Conventional Munitions.

The first major international effort to regulate the conduct of warfare was the Geneva Convention of 1864. Further meetings in Geneva resulted in international agreements on such things as the protection of medics and doctors in combat, humane treatment of prisoners of war and a ban on intentionally targeting civilians.

President Richard M. Nixon signed a treaty banning biological and toxic weapons just months before the Watergate burglary. And in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a treaty banning the use or stockpiling of chemical weapons. Last week at the Pentagon, Vic Mercado, a retired Navy rear admiral who now is a civilian Pentagon official for plans, said the idea of resuming work on chemical and biological weapons “hasn’t even come across my desk as an issue.”

Some nonprofit groups that have been involved in the creation and enforcement of different arms control treaties express concerns that the Trump administration is tearing apart legal frameworks that took decades to build and that have successfully limited civilian harm during armed conflict.

Since Mr. Trump took office in early 2017, State Department officials have become less active in yearly meetings that chart the progress of various arms-control treaties, said Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch.

“At the last annual meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in November, the United States did not speak during the meeting’s general debate,” Ms. Wareham said. “The United States delegation to the convention has become quieter and quieter, contributing less and less to multilateral discussions.”

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