NEW YORK – U.S. troops in Iraq will soon be able to lace their defensive perimeters with a high-tech, multi-pronged version of one of the most effective weapons in their enemy's playbook: the remote-controlled bomb.
By June, soldiers in the Army's Stryker Brigade (search), which operates mainly in and around the northern city of Mosul, will be able to pick out an individual anti-personnel munition from a minefield of hundreds and explode it by pushing a computer's touch screen from many yards away.
The system, known as Matrix (search), is part of the Army's emerging arsenal of "smart" land mines that military officials say are meant to do away with the accidental deaths and maimings caused by their not-so-smart brethren.
Twenty-five sets of mines, including M18 Claymores (search), and the laptops that trigger them over a wireless network are being rushed into the field after the system was successfully tested in September.
Activists who have campaigned to rid the world of land mines are worried about the Matrix system's potential for havoc.
"We're concerned the United States is going to field something that has the capability of taking the man out of the loop when engaging the target," said senior researcher Mark Hiznay of Human Rights Watch (search). "Or that we're putting a 19-year-old soldier in the position of pushing a button when a blip shows up on a computer screen."
Hiznay also worries that if need be, the smart land mines can be turned into plain old "dumb" anti-personnel mines.
The Landmine Survivors Network (search), based in Washington, D.C., and other activist groups have started a campaign asking supporters to write to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to voice their concerns.
Activists are questioning how soldiers will be able to identify a target from many yards away, and whether civilians could accidentally set off a mine. The Claymores being used in the system have been around since the Vietnam War, and have traditionally been camouflaged and set off by a tripwire.
They sit above the ground and are meant to be picked up and removed after an operation is complete.
That's not easing activists' minds.
"It seems obvious that these remote-control anti-personnel mines, however carefully monitored, will present new dangers to innocent Iraqi civilians for years to come," the landmine survivors' group says in a statement on its Web site.
Users of the system will be able to choose between blasting their enemies with Claymores, which spit out hundreds of steel balls propelled by plastic explosives, or with the M5 Modular Crowd Control Munition (search), a non-lethal take on the Claymore that sprays rubber balls instead of steel.
Activists' questions — about how soldiers will identify targets, and exactly how far away they can operate the system — have largely gone unanswered because the Army has released little information about Matrix.
"We don't know enough about how this thing operates to say whether this is a good or a bad idea," Hiznay said.
Representatives from the Pentagon and the Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, which developed Matrix along with contractors Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) of Edina, Minn., and Textron Systems (TXT) of Wilmington, Mass., would not comment for this story.
Alliant Techsystems spokesman Bryce Hallowell said, "We're very pleased with the rapid development and fielding of Matrix and look forward to its deployment in support of our troops." He would not comment further.
In a January statement e-mailed to reporters to announce the planned deployment of Matrix, Picatinny said the system was meant for "firebase security, landing zone security, remote offensive attack and both infrastructure and check point protection."
"The system is user friendly and a soldier will require a minimal amount of training in order to safely employ and use the system," Army Maj. Joe Hitt, the Matrix project's leader, said in the prepared statement.
Military analyst John Pike of Globalsecurity.org (search) believes the system could be used to attack enemies who are encroaching on a base but are too far away to hit with sniper fire, which he says can only reach out about a mile.
"You can see much farther than that. If you wanted to set up a perimeter security so that the enemy could not sneak up and mortar you, you could do it by putting out a mess of these things," he said. "And then with motion detectors or something, if somebody's sneaking up on you, you can look up in their direction."
Added Pike: "If you've got 500 of these mines out there, trying to figure out which one you want to detonate, when the clock's ticking, well that could be a brain teaser."
The Matrix system is an offshoot of a more ambitious smart-mine program called Spider that would incorporate other types of munitions. But Spider is not expected to be fielded for a few more years.
When Army officials saw what could be done with the Matrix system, they said, "This is good enough for right now. Let's get it fielded," Alliant's chief executive Daniel Murphy said in a conference call with Wall Street analysts in February.
He said the initial order is "not in excess of $10 million, I don't believe," but added: "I think they're both [Matrix and Spider] going to be deep programs over the long haul."