A Khmer Rouge General once described landmines as a ‘perfect soldier’: “Ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses.”
Landmines are a victim-activated explosive device, usually deployed discreetly on, or just below, the surface. They are generally divided into: anti-personnel and anti-vehicle. For the purposes of this briefing report by AOAV, we will primarily be focusing on the former.
Some landmines, laid up to a century ago, are still waiting to be activated. This is despite the large global movement against the use of landmines – almost unique in its near international unanimity, aside from perhaps chemical weapons.
Civilians continually make up the majority of landmine victims. In 2019, at least 80% of victims of such devices were civilians – where the status was known – according to the Landmine Monitor. This is because battlefields don’t remain battlefields once a conflict is over, yet landmines don’t know this.
The use of landmines is characterised by convenience. They are cheap, abundant and easy to use. This appeal has proved catastrophic for many communities around the world. Aside from the thousands of deaths and life-changing injuries that continue every year, landmines maintain a spectre of dormant yet sudden violence to those who live in their presence.
History already judges those who commanded them to be laid as the ultimate example in generational shortsightedness. Yet some state actors continue to produce and deploy landmines. Other militaries that ceased many years ago, such as the US, are beginning to insert ‘smart’ landmines into their arsenals. These devices are meant to preclude any civilian casualties, but critics argue that they breed complacency and re-legitimise the use of all landmines.
History of landmines
Landmines can arguably be dated back to at least the 4th-century. Roman soldiers would lay spiked tetrahedrons with the aim of piercing the feet of attacking troops. But the first explosive mines were successfully used by the Ming Dynasty in China in the 14th-century, utilising gunpowder and trip wires.
Three centuries later, a German engineer invented the Fladdermine (flying mine) that consisted of gunpowder under the surface. Pressure on the surface or tripping a wire caused a fire that would ignite the powder. These were used by the Russians in the Crimean War (1853-6) and in the Franco-Prussian War (1870). The cone-shaped fougasse was also used in European Wars and the American Revolution to defend fortifications – arguably a precursor to the modern directed fragmentation landmine, such as the claymore.
Illustration of the “self-tripped trespass land mine” from the Huolongjing (14th-century military treatise)
The first major use of modern-style explosive landmines were anti-vehicle, spurred on by the development of tanks during the First World War. As soldiers learned to pick up these devices and move them out the way, anti-tank mines quickly became protected by a ring of anti-personnel mines.
Mine warfare arguably reached its peak during the Second World War in North Africa. The desert landscape there offered few obstacles to mobilised, tank-heavy armies, so landmines were laid far and wide in order to delay encroachment. To this day, Egypt remains reportedly the most heavily mined country in the world, in part because of this legacy.
A major reason why landmines became so prevalent throughout the 20th-century is their low cost and simplicity. In that sense, landmines haven’t needed major development or technological innovation to remain effective.
That being said, more efficacious designs have been produced over time. New models, often called ‘smart mines’, have been engineered to self-destruct or self-deactivate after a short period of time. However, critics argue that since smart mines are still scattered indiscriminately, at a rate of thousands per minute, they could be even more dangerous to civilains than hand-laid ‘dumb’ mines. Also, civilians in that area will still have to live with the fear of mines that have failed to deactivate or that will suddenly self-destruct.
What are the different types of anti-personnel landmine?
Broadly, anti-personnel landmines can fall into three categories: directed fragmentation, bouncing fragmentation and blast.
- A directed fragmentation landmine propels pieces of metal shrapnel into the person that has activated it.
- A bounding fragmentation landmine, sometimes known as the ‘Bouncing Betty’, shoots about one metre up in the air and then explodes at an adult waist or – worse – a child’s head height.
- A blast landmine explodes at the feet of the victim
What are, broadly, the dimensions and weight of a landmine?
Blast antipersonnel mines tend to be cylindrical and can range from 7-16cm in diameter and 5-10cm in height. Some are also ‘shoebox’ shaped – to 15cm by 30cm.
Sand-colored VS-50 mine intended for use in desert environments (shown beside a wristwatch, for scale)
The M14 anti personnel mine (pictured below) is a tiny plastic-bodied mine. It’s just 40mm in height and 56mm in diameter. This mine has minimal metal and, as such, is very hard to detect. Variants have been made in Vietnam, Turkey, Myanmar and India. It is not designed to kill, but to incapacitate.
What quantity of explosives can landmines deliver?
The quantity of explosives can vary significantly. The tiny M14 anti-personnel mine contains just 31 grams of Tetryl.
Meanwhile, an M16 bounding fragmentation mine holds around 521 grams of trinitrotoluene, also known as TNT.
A typical blast antipersonnel mine typically contains less than 100 grams of explosive material.
What is the range of a landmine?
Generally speaking, an anti-personnel landmine is designed to incapacitate the individual that activates it. As such the range doesn’t tend to go beyond a few feet.
A directional fragmentation antipersonnel mine, such as the M18 Claymore mine, tends to be command-detonated. They shoot at a 60º horizontal arc and up to a 2 metre height. Most are designed to have an ‘effective range’, causing death or serious injury of around 50 metres, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
The bouncing fragmentation model, or ‘Bouncing Betty’ however, fires an explosive into the air before it detonates, thereby increasing the blast radius. The balls or metal shards within the mine are projected horizontally, at an angle of 60º and up to a height of nearly 2 metres. This means it can deliver fatal injuries to someone up to 49m away and serious injury up to 100 metres away.
How accurate is a landmine?
Due to the proximity of the victim, landmines could generally be said to be accurate. For example, when a stake mine that is fitted with a tripwire is activated, it projects metal fragments in 360º radius, causing lethal injury to anyone within an unobstructed 4 metre radius.
How precise is a landmine?
Having a 360º blast radius is a good example of an accurate but imprecise explosive weapon. It is likely to hit and damage it’s target, but it will not exclusively hit its target.
Directional fragmentation anti personnel landmines are more precise, in that they only project in one direction.
From a tactical point of view, it is preferable for a landmine to maim rather than kill the target. This is because a target who has lost a foot, for example, will likely require two colleagues to drag them away, thereby exposing the rescuers to more danger. They will also then take up valuable medical resources and will impact morale.
Who are the biggest manufacturers of landmines?
The 2020 Landmine Monitor denotes India, Iran, Myanmar, and Pakistan as the most likely active producers of antipersonnel landmines.
Another eight states are categorised as producers since they have not disavowed doing so through international treaties. These are: China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, the US, and Vietnam.
In August 2020, the Landmine Monitor noted that Iran’s Ministry of Defence Export Center advertised the availability of the YM-IV, a bounding, fragmentation antipersonnel mine. A government procurement database in India lists the purchase of APER-1B anti-personnel mine components by the state-owned Indian Ordnance Factories enterprise.
51 nation states are confirmed to have been past producers. Five deny it: Croatia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Thailand, and Venezuela.
In August 2019, South Korea confirmed that it had not produced any anti-personnel
landmines in the previous five years.
Non-state actors have produced improvised landmines in Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Yemen.
Where are landmines used?
Statistics on victims of antipersonnel landmines tend to be combined with other explosive remnants of war. The states that are party to the 1997 Convention on anti-personnel landmines, that have also recently suffered landmine casualties are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, BiH, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, Colombia, Croatia, DRC, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Palestine, Poland, Senegal, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
There are another 14 states that are not 1997 signatories that have seen landmine or ERW casualties: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, India, Iran, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
2019 Landmine Casualties (Source: Landmine Monitor 2020, pp 36-38)
- Afghanistan: 1,538
- Syria: 1,125
- Myanmar: 358
- Mali: 345
- Ukraine: 324
- Nigeria: 239
- Iraq: 161
- Pakistan: 136
- Colombia: 111
In terms of nations with the greatest number of landmines, Egypt alone contains around 20% of the active landmines in the world, according to Landmine Free World:
- Egypt (23 million, mostly in border regions);
- Angola (9-15 million); Iran (16 million);
- Afghanistan (about 10 million);
- Iraq (10 million);
- China (10 million);
- Cambodia (up to 10 million);
- Mozambique (about 2 million);
- Bosnia (2-3 million);
- Croatia (2 million);
- Somalia (up to 2 million in the North);
- Eritrea (1 million);
- Sudan (1 million).
Who typically uses landmines?
In recent years, antipersonnel landmines have been more typically used by non-state actors.
Between mid-2017 through to October 2020, new use of antipersonnel mines by government forces have been documented in Myanmar. Prior to that, the Syrian government were the only other state actor to have used anti-personnel mines.
In the same period, non-state actors using landmines have been recorded in Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.
Generally what types of injuries do landmines cause?
The most common serious injury from landmines is amputation. A study of victims in Afghanistan found that 47.5% of landmine victims suffered an amputation. The other most common injuries were to the legs/feet (29.2%) and blindness (2.3%). Landmines were more deadly than ERW, with 10% of incidents proving fatal, compared to 6.5% for the latter.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has identified three main patterns of landmine injury:
“Pattern One Injury.
Traumatic amputation of one or both legs, usually caused by stepping on an AP blast mine. The resulting explosion destroys the foot and often part of the leg. The explosion also drives fragments of the mine casing and parts of the victim’s own shoe and clothing into the wound, along with other debris such as soil and vegetation. The resulting injuries can easily become infected and the victim can require several operations. Traumatic amputation of the affected leg is the usual result.
“Pattern Two Injury.
Multiple lacerations caused by fragmentation. Usually caused as a result of the victim being in the vicinity of a detonating AP fragmentation mine or item of unexploded ordnance. It is believed that many of the most severely injured pattern 2 casualties do not survive the trip to the nearest hospital.
“Pattern Three Injury.
Traumatic amputation of one or both hands, accompanied by injuries to the face and eyes. Such injuries are usually caused by handling landmines or items of unexploded ordnance.”
- From Understanding Landmines and Mine Action, ICRC, 2003
In children, the pattern three injury is most common and relates to accidental detonation whilst handling a mine. Surgery on these types of injuries are difficult, even under experienced hands, since dirt and debris are driven up into broken skin and can cause infection and complications.
The wounds often cause fractures and skin loss. Surgical amputation of entire limbs that are beyond repair is not unusual. On average, mine injuries require three or four operations due to infections. Children often have to go through re-amputation as their bone growth may outpace the soft tissue and penetrate their stump.
What patterns of harm do landmines cause to surrounding environments and infrastructure?
The impact of landmines goes beyond human injury. Landmine contamination and detonation set off a chain reaction of infrastructural and environmental harm that impacts both society and the biosphere.
Soil degradation, deforestation, water pollution and the alteration of entire species’ populations by degrading habitats and disrupting food chains are amongst the areas of environmental harm caused by landmines.
In terms of infrastructure, there are almost countless effects that landmines have on a society’s infrastructure. In Afghanistan, for example, more than 8,000 public buildings were declared as currently unusable in 2012, due to the presence of landmines.
Similarly, landmines laid on roads make the movement of goods more difficult. The resultant increase in transportation costs and travel times can have a significant economic impact.
The spectre of uncleared landmines can also prevent land being developed for further essential infrastructure, such as schools, roads and farms.
Research support provided by Ana-Marija Apostoloska.
For more information on the role of landmines in explosive violence of the last decade, read our milestone report: A Decade of Explosive Violence Harm.
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