mine, in warfare

mine, in warfare, term formerly applied to a system of tunnels dug under an army fortification and ending in a chamber where either explosives were placed to be detonated at a chosen moment or the supports were burned, causing the mine and the wall above it to collapse. Modern mines are encased explosives detonated by contact, magnetic proximity, or electrical impulse.

Land mines, equipped with pressure sensors slightly above or below ground, came into wide use in World War II, particularly in N Africa and Russia and on the Western front. They are of two general types—antipersonnel and antitank; the latter are designed so that lighter objects will not cause them to explode. Mines can now be manufactured to contain an internal clock that deactivates them after a set time period; they are referred to as “smart” mines. Mines whose detonation deactivation is not set are called “dumb” or persistent mines. To prevent magnetic detection, modern land mines have often been encased in plastic rather than metal.

No completely safe way of removing land mines is known. In World War II the United States and Great Britain developed several types of mine-detecting and mine-exploding equipment, but they proved inadequate. Despite technological advances, identification still usually requires an inch by inch probing of the ground, which carries great risk and cost.

In 1997 an international treaty called for signatory nations to end the use, development, acquisition, and stockpiling of land mines and to destroy their current stocks of such mines; the treaty went into effect in 1999. More than 160 nations are now parties to the treaty. The United States refused to sign the treaty, arguing that doing so would hinder the country's ability to protect its troops; Russia and China also did not signed. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the signing of the treaty.

According to UN figures, at the end of the 20th cent. there were more than 100 million mines laid across the world, and about the same amount in national stockpiles. Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, and Laos were believed to be the nations worst affected by land mines; land mines are also a significant problem in Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Chad, Croatia, Thailand, and Turkey. In Afghanistan and Cambodia it was estimated that a third of the land was unusable due to buried mines. As many as 26,000 injuries and death resulted worldwide each year from land mines; roughly three quarters of those affected were and are civilians. Under the treaty roughly half of the world's stockpiled land mines have been destroyed, though national compliance with the treaty was typically slower than required, and more than 25 nations once affected by land mines were considered to have been cleared. In 2015, some 6,500 people were killed or injured by land mines. The U.S. government ended the use of persistent land mines in 2011, and subsequently (2014) announced it would abide by the treaty everywhere except Korea, but it abandoned those positions during the Trump administration. Despite its not having signed the treaty, the United States has been the largest provider of financial aid for mine clearance.

Naval mines of various types have been used periodically since the 16th cent., but it was not until World War I that they entered into wide use. Modern naval mines, equipped with sonar or magnetic sensors, are laid on the surface of the sea or sometimes anchored below. They fall within two broad classifications—automatic and controlled. The automatic mine, once planted and armed, is activated by the presence of a ship; it is incapable of discriminating between friendly and enemy ships. The controlled mine, in contrast, is connected by electric cable to a shore station and can be disarmed to allow the passage of friendly vessels. For defensive purposes, mines are often placed in secretly charted locations near protected harbors by specially equipped vessels known as minelayers. As an offensive weapon, mines are placed in or near enemy harbors, generally by aircraft or submarine.

Minesweepers are employed as a countermeasure, often with wooden or composite hulls to avoid magnetic mines. Helicopters can explode mines by towing sweeping equipment while traveling at a safe distance above the water. Minesweeping is vital both during and after a conflict, as thousands of active mines may still be floating in shipping lanes. As recently as the mid-1990s naval mines were discovered in the seabed off a popular beach in Malta; they had been laid by the British during World War II to sink German vessels.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Military Affairs (nonnaval)