From New Scientist
Alternatives to landmines
LASER-guided robotic machine guns, electronic tags that cling to soldiers' clothing and call in mini-missiles, or fields full of simple vibration sensors-all these could one day provide substitutes for anti-personnel landmines, according to a report from the US National Academy of Sciences.
In 2006, the US is set to belatedly join 139 other countries in agreeing to the Ottawa Convention outlawing anti-personnel landmines, so Congress asked the academy to assess alternatives. George Bugliarello of the Polytechnic University in New York, who chaired the academy's committee, says their aim was to identify "Ottawa-compliant" technologies that discriminate between troops and civilians.
Most antipersonnel landmine alternatives include what the military call a "man-in-the-loop"-someone who assesses the threat before a weapon is activated. One such system recommended by the academy is the "nonself-destructing" mine. When someone steps on it, it alerts an observer who decides whether to detonate it or not. But academy committee member Larry Lehowicz says the military have requested a controversial modification that allows the mine to be switched to automatic. "There's an argument to have a switch so you could put it on automatic if your position is about to be overrun," says Lehowicz. But automatic operation would breach the treaty, he says. Instead, the academy recommended Ottawa-compliant switches that let the mines go off randomly in the next few minutes, or pass control to people further away.
The academy also recommends development of a laser-radar directed machine gun (LDMG). Scattered around an area, the multi-barrelled weapons are rotated to scan the ground up to 500 metres in front of them. The laser radar detects potential targets while a computer tries to identify them. Staff at a command centre take the decision whether to fire. The LDMG would be able to fire incapacitating rubber projectiles or lethal explosive munitions.
Meanwhile, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already looking at two alternatives to anti-personnel mines. The focus of its research is a "self-healing" minefield (New Scientist, 30 September 2000, p 4), in which anti-tank mines hop around to replace cleared mines. Another approach is to scatter a field with thousands of tiny electronic burrs that cling to a soldier's clothing. Tracking the position of the burrs pinpoints the intruders. "We really want to put a tag on the enemy and have a munition that can home in on that target," says Tom Altshuler of DARPA's advanced technology office. By homing in on a tag, the system would get around a problem with man-in-the-loop systems: the target may have moved by the time you've given the order to fire. But getting the system to work will be tough, says Altshuler. "It'd be nice to tell the difference between a two-legged and a four-legged creature," he says.
The academy also recommended systems that simply sense enemy troops. Thousands of sensors could be dropped from planes, or fired by artillery. To conserve power, they would just detect sound or vibration, but switch on power-hungry video cameras as an enemy got nearer. "Essentially you'd need no landmines at all," says Lehowicz. "What was positive is that they came to the conclusion that alternatives exist-although some of it's scary stuff," admits Mark Hiznay of Human Rights Watch in Washington DC. "But they didn't look at changes in strategy to see if these kinds of things are even needed anymore."
Author: Ian Sample
New Scientist issue: 7th April 2001
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