Friday, December 02, 2005

Your Mines and Ours

As most readers probably know, American landmines and other conventional munitions - some of them decades old - are still killing and maiming hundreds of people every year. Things are particularly bad in Laos:

[A]n estimated 2 million tonnes of munitions were dropped on Laos, a landlocked jungle-clad country of 5 million people which still has the dubious honour of being the most bombed country per capita in the world. Of that 2 million tonnes, around 30 percent did not detonate, say Lao bomb disposal experts responsible for cleaning up the horrific harvest of unexploded ordnance, or UXO as it is called....The munitions come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from mortars to phosphorous rockets to 3,000-lb bombs dropped from high in the sky by B-52s.
Landmine Monitor describes the almost unimaginable extent of this problem:
It was estimated in 2004 that 87,213 square kilometers (37 percent of the land area) remained at risk from UXO, with 12,427 square kilometers considered high risk. Clearance teams have found at least 186 different types of ordnance scattered across Laos, including 19 types of cluster munitions. Ten of the 18 provinces were described as severely contaminated. The Minister of Labor and Social Welfare declared that clearance of high priority agricultural land will take 24 years, and complete clearance will take over 100 years. UXO contamination poses a significant obstacle to development in rural Laos.
Indeed, the economic effects of landmines often don't get the attention they deserve. Mines and UXO render large areas of farmland unusable, and kill livestock, in regions where agriculture is the population's primary means of support. Accordingly, mine-free patches of land are overutilized and depleted. Too often, the result is that residents are reduced to dependence on the ebb and flow of foreign aid handouts, or the dangerous practice of selling munition fragments as scrap metal. Also, the cost of mine clearing can limit the ability of poor governments to invest in education, public health, infrastructure, and so forth.

Now, New Scientist reports that Raytheon has developed a new method for clearing unexploded mines. It's filed a patent for a shell containing hundred of steel arrows:
Each rod has a flared rear end, like the feathers of an arrow, and hundreds can be packed into a single cylindrical shell. This shell can be lobbed into a mined area and just before impact a charge behind the arrows will fire them downwards. The metal flights will keep the arrows on a straight course so that they pepper the area at high velocity and at regular spaces.

Tests show that a shell containing hundreds of arrows can wipe out every mine in an area several metres square, even when the mines are buried under sand or under nearly a metre of water. GPS can also be used to guide the shells into overlapping patches in order to safely clear a wide area.
Before addressing the merits of this shell, I'd like to point out that Raytheon has refused to stop manufacturing antipersonnel mines; when asked to give up this gruesome trade by Human Rights Watch, Raytheon responded with one of the most bloodcurdling statements I've ever come upon:
It is generally not our practice to broadly and formally renounce participation in businesses.
That being the case, it's not surprising that one can find certain flaws in Raytheon's solution to a problem that's partially of its own making. Mass detonation of landmines is going to result in contamination of agricultural land, and changes to soil composition. It's also possible that the destruction of vegetation could increase soil erosion, and affect water quality and drainage. Using such a device to clear mines in water could lead to other environmental problems, which I don't think I have to enumerate. The whole thing smacks of contempt: contempt for ethical responsibilities, contempt for human beings, and contempt for land and nature.

In addition to which, a commenter at WorldChanging raises an important question: Would making landmines "easier" to clear remove moral obstacles to using them? Could we deploy them without compunction, knowing that a final barrage of mine-detonating shells would "solve" the problem (just as soon as the population proved itself worthy of having its hostage land freed)?

In 2004, the United States contributed almost $2 million to organizations engaged in clearing mines and UXO from Laos. In the same year, Raytheon spent $4.35 million on lobbying efforts in Washington DC. It earned $8.5 billion in military contracts in that year, and spent almost a million on campaign contributions to both parties. In the firm's Annual Report, CEO William Swanson boasted:
2004 was a strong year with record orders of $25.7 billion; sales of $20.2 billion - a 12% increase over 2003; record backlog of $32.5 billion; $2.1 billion of net debt reduction; and 32% total return for our shareholders.
As you've probably guessed, my opinion is that Raytheon - and other defense contractors who've made a literal killing in the past few decades - should use a bit of these record profits to pay for UXO clearing and land remediation in countries like Laos, instead of inventing new forms of ordnance to drop on them.

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