Is there anything in UCMJ or international law the prevents the use of booby traps

Dealing with booby traps in recently-occupied territory is a constant theme of accounts of WW1 and WW2 (explosives triggered by automatic trigger, not directly by a human with a detonator), particularly in occupying territory behind retreating Germans (I guess this was a part of the strategy of “defense in depth” that Germany followed in both world wars, but I’ve never seen it stated anywhere). Likewise they feature in accounts of all the wars the US has been involved in since then, up to current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My question is, if the circumstances were appropriate and they would gain a military advantage from doing so (not particularly likely in the current campaigns, I realize) would US troops be allowed to place booby traps? Is there anything in UCMJ or international law (as the US is not a signatory to the international treat on landmines) that explicitly bans it? Are any US troops given training in planting, rather than diffusing booby traps?

Here’s an article that might shed some light (PDF, 2012).

You can check out CCW: Amended Protocol II as part of the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. It is designed to cover the particular uses of things like incendiary weapons, lasers, and land mines.

Basically, the Convention says that booby traps are generally okay, except for certain situations. You aren’t allowed to include certain countermeasures that would make it harder for a mine-sweeper to remove the device when the need for it has passed. You aren’t allowed to deliberately place traps in civilian areas that serve no military purpose, and you can’t do anything that would be construed as treachery or perfidy. For example, if you booby-trapped medical supplies that could be considered perfidy, because items marked with a Red Cross (or equivalent) medical symbol are considered to be out-of-bounds. Children’s toys, religious objects, food, etc are all off-limits. There are also certain types of traps that would be illegal to use in a trap. Glass, for example, is prohibited because it is very hard to remove from the body and therefore causes unnecessary suffering.

I’ve never seen this sort of training given to the US military, because there’s really no reason for it. If Americans wanted to lay landmines or defensive traps, they have ready-made devices for that. There’s really no reason to improvise. These kinds of things are usually done by the side that is at a disadvantage in terms of materiel. FWIW, there was a US Army manual (TM 31-210 Improvised Munitions Handbook) that has directions for making this stuff. I believe it was intended for SF. I could see that SF would have a reason to learn these things, because they are supposed to train indigs and work behind the lines.

Though if that is the case, why did the Germans during the world wars (and other conventional armies) with plenty of access to state of the art landmines and such use booby traps so much?

You want to compare the modern US military - which is exceedingly well supplied and primarily fighting counterinsurgency missions - to WW2 Germans. The guys who moved their supplies by horse cart and couldn’t find enough coats.

Setting booby traps is not something a person does when they are well supplied and taking offensive action. Booby traps (including IEDs) are laid by people who are on the defensive and don’t have anything better. If I’m given the choice between a factory-made antipersonnel mine and an improvised booby trap, I’m picking the factory model every time. Modern American “traps” are things like tripwire flares, claymores, and FASCAM.

The Wehrmacht probably didn’t use lots of traps or mines when they entered Poland or France. But I can definitely see it happening on the retreat from France or Russia. We’re talking about people who had to cannibalize their worst tank every day just to keep the other tanks functioning. The Germans never truly had access to 100% of what they would like to have, and when they ran out of mines they could not just fly in a new box.

FWIW, I’ve never heard much about conventional armies using improvised traps. It might happen if someone is isolated and in desperate circumstances… EG the end of ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ When I think “booby trap” I think of Vietnam, where communist insurgents had to improvise low-cost, low-risk traps for GIs, or the modern IED war.

If you look at the modern US conflicts, I’m not even sure when someone would have had a reason to use improvised traps. Our offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan are characterized by high speed and aggression. Things happen crazy fast and they were always on the move. If you are constantly moving and constantly on the offense, it doesn’t really make sense.

After the initial US offensives, we settled down into prolonged counterinsurgencies. At this point, we saw our troops living in massive, well-supplied bases. Running out of claymores was never a problem. And when would we even need to set booby-traps? Who would be the target? That only makes sense if you - for example - discovered an enemy supply cache or something. Usually they just exploit caches for fingerprints and the like.

Maybe one day we will be in a war where isolated troops are put in the defensive and must improvise traps for the enemy. In our current situation, I cannot imagine when that might happen. Air power and helicopters have essentially made it impossible for troops to be isolated without resupply for more than a few hours.

The latter point is clearly true and clearly (IMO) why there haven’t been many examples where the US military could have used booby traps to any advantage (I was actually thinking when the last time they could potentially have done, I am guessing Korea)

The former point is definitely not true. The Germans used booby traps extensively throughout both world wars, not just in the final stages when their supply lines had collapsed and they had no other choice. There are many, many accounts of the allies dealing with them (they are an important part of the plot of the English Patient). Throughout both wars the Germans used the strategy of “defense in depth” where they were prepared to cede ground temporarily to the enemy, so there was plenty of opportunity use them as a means to force the allies to take casualties occupying ground.

US Army Technical Manual 31-210 explains how to make improvised munitions, and Field Manual 5-31 explains how to make booby traps.

Darkon beat me to the punch. But I have an email to a legitimate JAG to answer the question. . . more to follow.

Long story short, I believe it ‘intent’ (of the target booby trap) lies along Geneva Convention lines. Those lines fall after the OP’s original intent, but afterwards. Bottom line: depends on the target, and who finds the trap.

I’ll get back with you. . .