We do not know who fired the shot that killed Sam White in February, 2008.
We do not even know the exact year that the shot was fired, though we can at least approximate the era. The 75 pound cannonball was built for naval use during the Civil War, and it sat waiting full of terrible potential until, as the ATF investigation concluded, a spark from a grinder White was using set off black powder and ignited the explosive material that remained in the shell. White was dead, and shrapnel was scattered through his neighborhood in suburban Richmond.
White’s hobby was restoration of civil war cannonballs, which is what brought the naval round to his grinder in the first place. It is also a reminder of the longevity of unexploded ordnance. Munitions, designed to endure the rigors of war until they are needed, can and do persist for decades and sometimes even centuries beyond when they were first created.
This is true for all munitions, and it is especially true for land mines.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Albuquerque, New Mexico, I am here to talk about firing salvos into the future.
Land mines are in some sense the spiritual successor to caltrops, an ancient area denial tool scattered to impede people on foot or horseback. And while explosives placed in the ground go back almost as far as the invention of gunpowder, the modern land mine can trace its most direct lineage to the conflict on American soil.
Built of black powder explosive in a container with a fuse triggered by a pressure cap, early land mines saw action in war fought by the United States against the Seminole people of Florida in 1840. It was the Civil War that expanded and popularized the use of land mines, in part as a tool of asymmetric warfare.
By the 20th century, land mines combined with other weapons that favored the defensive and lead to the durability of entrenched positions in World War I. In France, where farmland became battlefield and farmland once again, the annual recovery of war material unearthed while plowing has been nicknamed the “iron harvest.” For some of the worst areas of fighting, it is estimated that deliberate clean-up could extend into next century.
It is entirely possible that the last person killed by a land mine on the western front has not only not yet been born, but that their grandparents have not yet been born.
It is with this longevity in mind that I want to talk about the future of land mines. Because every land mine is, once set in place, an autonomous weapon fired against an unknown target, at an unknown time, of an unknown status, until it is deactivated, detonated, or dismantled.
Modern technology offers a possibility of mine deactivation, and that is what the Pentagon emphasized as it announced a change to official US policy regarding the development of land mines.
“The United States will not sacrifice American servicemembers’ safety, particularly when technologically advanced safeguards are available that allow landmines to be employed responsibly to ensure our military’s warfighting advantage, and limit the risk of unintended harm to civilians,” reads the new Landmine Policy. “These safeguards require landmines to self-destruct, or in the event of a self-destruct failure, to self-deactivate within a prescribed period of time.”
Guaranteeing the safe deactivation of a newly produced land mine is a tremendous amount of faith to put in modern technology. It also discounts the nature of dud, explosive weapons where the payload remains intact but the detonation mechanisms fail. What is durable about land mine design is what’s old, the potency, the mechanical triggers, the ability to stay self-contained until the right trigger is activated.
What is much trickier is to make a device that retains that same potency, the durability of threat, and then can self-destruct harmlessly on a set trigger. Or one that can be disarmed of its own recognition, without allowing an adversary to disarm it remotely.
As my colleague Mark Pomerleau reports in an upcoming story, the Pentagon itself discovered that electronic warfare tools, used to disable improvised explosive devices, inadvertently jammed friendly systems. That’s to say nothing of a future where the military uses remote triggers for its own mines, and then has to safeguard those triggers from others being able to activate them, while ensuring that minesweepers decades in the future will be able to disarm those same mines.
It is a technical challenge compounded by the lack of interest in traditional US allies in developing such technologies. Over 160 countries are signatories on the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.