Attrition: Anti-Tank Mines In Ukraine


May 4, 2023: In the latest arms shipment to Ukraine the United States included thousands of M21 anti-tank mines. The metal, 8 kg (17.5 pound) mines that, once planted and armed, will detonate when anything moving over it weighs more than 136 kg (300 pounds), sending a curved metal bar upwards. This will blow the track off a tank and can also penetrate up to 50mm of armor. Tanks and smaller armored vehicles running over an M21 become “mobility kills”. This means they cannot move because of damaged tracks and/or tires/track wheels and suspension system. If this happens during combat, the vehicles and their crews are in big trouble. That often means the crew abandons the vehicle and seeks shelter elsewhere. Historically, most tank and armored fighting vehicle (AFV) losses come from mobility kills. The Ukraine War was unique because top attack ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) were able to destroy tanks and AFVs by causing the turret to explode and kill the entire crew. Now the Ukrainians are on the offensive and have to devote a lot of men and resources to removing anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. With the M21 mines the Ukrainians can protest quiet sectors of the front line from surprise armored attacks with these mines.

Russia has used a lot of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in Ukraine and the Ukrainian forces have been supplied with equipment and training to find and destroy or disable them. Russia has deployed thousands of these mines in the southeast to disrupt a Ukrainian offensive. Russia has mapped these minefields in case they are no longer needed and the mines can be removed. If Russia is defeated, those minefield maps are unlikely to be given to the Ukrainians and the mines will be a public hazard for years to come. Ukraine will have to maintain mine-clearing teams and await reports from local civilians about minefield discoveries.

There is an international treaty banning the use of anti-personnel but not anti-tank mines. Several major nations did not sign the treaty, including the United States. The Americans had their own restrictions on the use of mines and changed those policies as needed. For example, in 2020 the United States lifted restrictions on the deployment of anti-personnel landmines by American forces. This ban had been imposed in 2014 for American troops everywhere except those in South Korea. That decision was criticized worldwide because most nations had signed and ratified the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning the manufacture or use of landmines.

The new American rules allow U.S. troops to use landmines that are activated or deactivated electronically and permanently deactivated after a set period or when their battery runs out of power. The Americans believe the mines are essential in Korea because North Korea has been threatening to attack again.

The U.S. believes the Ottawa Convention is largely a failure because landmines are still widely used. While 161 nations signed the Ottawa treaty, the 36 which did not comprise some major military powers like China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel (and the Palestinians), both Koreas, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Most of these nations still see a pressing need for landmines, although many are trying to find replacement weapons.

Landmines were outlawed in 1999 but most of the nations that rushed to sign the Ottawa Convention either didn't have landmines or didn't have any reason to use them. While landmine casualties have declined from about 20,000 a year when the Cold War ended (1991) to about 5,000 now, that was largely due to the collapse of many communist governments, which were always the biggest landmine users, mainly to keep people from entering or leaving their territory. The fall of communism led to more open borders and a lot of mines were taken out of service. Treaty backers like to take credit for 87 countries destroying 46 million landmines. The reality was that most of those mines would have been destroyed anyway because the collapse of so many communist governments made most of those mines useless and a burden to keep in storage..

Despite the anti-landmine efforts, some countries still manufacture and use them. In the last few years Israel, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar (Burma) have planted new mines. Some nations that still use landmines, like Israel, have taken the lead in developing new technology and techniques for quickly clearing landmines, especially old ones whose location was never recorded.

In addition, there are three countries still manufacturing landmines (India, Myanmar, and Pakistan). Arms dealers still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus. China, Russia, and other communist nations were the major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not so much for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and preventing citizens from leaving unpleasant dictatorships.

There has been a growing list of outlaw organizations that are ignoring the 1999 ban. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are manufacturing landmines in primitive workshops and using them against Pakistani, Afghan, and foreign soldiers, as well as Afghan civilians who refuse to support Islamic terrorism. Rebels and gangsters have not signed the international agreement and find the mines a cheap way to control civilian populations and slow down the movements of the security forces. It takes more time, money, and effort to remove these mines than to place them.

Despite the 1999 treaty, landmines are still causing over 5,000 casualties a year worldwide. About 20 percent of the victims are killed and 90 percent of them are males. This is largely because men are more likely to be out in the bush or working farmlands that still contain mines. A third of the casualties are security personnel (police and soldiers). This is because in many countries rebels and criminals are still using landmines, either factory made ones from countries that did not sign the Ottawa Convention or locally made models.

Landmines are simple to make and workshops are easily set up to do it. There's no shortage of mines out there, despite the fact that so many have been destroyed in the name of the 1999 Ottawa Convention. There are believed to be over 100 million mines still in the ground and at least as many in military warehouses for future use.

The 1999 Ottawa Convention was supposed to have eliminated the threat of landmines. It hasn't worked because the owners of the largest landmine stockpiles, especially Russia and China, refused to sign. Chinese landmines are still available on the international arms black market. China is believed to have the largest stockpile, mostly of anti-personnel mines. The old ones are often sold before they become worthless. But even these mines, which go for $5-10 each, are too expensive for many of the criminal organizations that buy them. Land mines, competitive with the factory built ones from China, can be built for less than $3 each. You can find all the technical data you need on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the most effective way to get the mine-clearing done is by training local volunteers to be part of the part-time mine-clearing teams. The government must provide training, pay (which should be good by local standards), and health and life insurance. When a new bunch of mines is found, usually by an animal coming across them, the team gets to work.

Landmines continue to be a nasty problem for many nations. This is especially true of countries in out-of-the-way places that rarely generate many headlines for any reason. A typical case is Tajikistan. One of the northern neighbors of Afghanistan, Tajikistan long had mines on its borders because of communist policies towards free movement, as in as little as possible. After becoming independent of Russia in the early 1990s, Tajikistan went through several years of civil war in which both sides planted thousands of Cold War surplus landmines. Russia helped settle that internal conflict and supplied peacekeepers, who also manned the Afghan border to try and keep the Afghan heroin and hashish out. This involved more new minefields along the Afghan border. There were also some mines planted on the new international borders (with other former parts of the Soviet Union).

While Tajikistan got some foreign aid to help with clearing all those mines, only about 30 percent of the known minefields have been cleared so far. Fortunately, the mines tend to be planted in thinly populated areas, so only about 350,000 people live near enough to the mined areas to be in any danger. Thus, since 1991, 20-30 people a year have been killed by the mines, with another 30-40 wounded. Civilians are the most frequent victims of landmines.

India and Pakistan continue to maintain extensive minefields along their 900 kilometer border. Both countries still manufacture mines. Same deal with the two Koreas and Israel on its Syrian border.

The United States believes it cannot ignore this vital tool in conventional warfare. This is especially true in an increasingly unstable strategic environment. The ethical problem is an important one. Unilateral disarmament is a fools’ errand when likely adversaries won’t join in. Since 2016 the Americans have been developing landmines with a “self-destruct and self-activate” function. These landmines would be rendered harmless after a conflict. There are two approaches to the problem. The first one aims to add additional sensors and connect smart mines into wireless networks supervised by a soldier who decides whether to detonate landmines or not. The second way involves the addition of self-destruct and self-activate mechanisms that activate after a set time or when the battery power is exhausted.

There is still a problem because self-destruct mechanisms are not 100 percent reliable. International agreements allow a 10 percent dud rate. This could be higher due to the delivery method. The landmines are usually scattered by aircraft or artillery at a rate of thousands in a matter of minutes, with little precision. These are similar to cluster munitions and some landmines might fail to arm or their self-destruct system is damaged. For example, Russia has used “smart” mines which are still dangerous in Chechnya many years after the conflict. Even more advanced networked minefields pose a serious danger for friendly forces passing through them when in “off-mode” as did dumb minefields during Gulf War of 1991. In general, the demining problem remains unresolved because even in deactivated minefields some landmines will remain active, although less frequently than usual because of the new tech.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close