By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday relaxed Obama-era restrictions on the U.S. military’s use of anti-personnel land mines, arguing that the previous policy could put American troops at a “severe disadvantage.”
The move was criticized by arms control proponents and underscores the administration’s willingness to upend policies set by Trump’s Democratic predecessor, in the face of concerns about the dangers such weaponry poses to civilians long after conflicts end.
“The president’s decision to roll back the policy on anti-personnel landmines is as perplexing as it is disappointing, and reflexive, and unwise,” Senator Patrick Leahy said.
President Barack Obama’s administration said in 2014 it would no longer produce or otherwise acquire anti-personnel land mines, including to replace existing U.S. stockpiles which can age to the point where the munitions can longer be used.
The United States had also prohibited the use of the weapons outside of the Korean Peninsula.
In a statement, the White House said the Pentagon had determined the restrictions could put troops at a disadvantage.
“This policy will authorize Combatant Commanders, in exceptional circumstances, to employ advanced, non-persistent landmines specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians and partner forces,” the White House said.
The new policy, which was the result of a 2017 review started by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, will allow the military to use land mines that can self-destruct in 30 days or less and have a back up deactivation feature.
The Pentagon said there were no “geographic limitations” to where the land mines could be used.
Vic Mercado, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities at the Pentagon, said the focus of the policy was on “great power competition” – referring to China and Russia.
Mercado said land mine use would need to be authorized by a four-star military official and reviewed by the secretary of defense.
He spoke after Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at a news conference with his Italian counterpart, said American forces needed access to land mines.
“Land mines are an important tool that our forces need to have available to them in order to ensure mission success and in order to reduce risk to forces,” Esper said.
“That said, in everything we do we also want to make sure that these instruments, in this case land mines, also take into account both the safety of employment and the safety to civilians and others after a conflict,” Esper added.
The United States is not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which took effect in 1999 and broadly prohibits the development, use and acquisition of anti-personnel land mines.
Washington had abided by many provisions of the treaty, which had been endorsed by more than 160 countries
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)