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Why Now?

By P. W. Singer

The desperate position in which many children around the world find themselves is almost unimaginable. Although positive in some terms, the developments of globalization that dominated the last quarter century have left many behind, while rending many traditional societies and mores. The brunt of these socioeconomic problems has fallen on the youngest segments of the population, as we are now in the midst of the largest generation of youth in human history. Almost a quarter of all the world's youth survive on less than a dollar a day. As many as 250 million children live on the street; 211 million children must work to feed themselves and their families and 115 million children have never been to school.1 A third of all children in Africa suffer from severe hunger. These desperate and excluded children constitute a huge pool of labor for the illegal economy, organized crime, and armed conflicts.

To make matters worse, there is AIDS, which is gradually creating a new pool of orphans, a group especially susceptible to being pulled into child soldiering. By 2010, more than 43 million children will have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS, including 33 percent of all children in the hardest-hit countries. (The normal percentage of children who are orphans in developing countries is two percent.) Among them are 2.7 million in Nigeria, 2.5 million in Ethiopia, and 1.8 million in South Africa.2 India alone already has 120,000 AIDS orphans. That only six of the 40 countries hardest hit by AIDS have any plans to assist orphans makes the situation only worse.3

This cohort represents a new "lost orphan generation."4 Both the stigma of the disease and the sheer number of victims will overwhelm the communities and extended families that would normally look after these orphans. Their prospects are heartrending, and dangerous. Besides being malnourished, stigmatized, and vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, the mass of disconnected and disaffected children is particularly at risk of being exploited as child soldiers. Having watched their parents die and been forced to fend for themselves, many will consider they have nothing to lose by entering into war.

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Concurrent with these global trends have been the proliferation and technological advancement of personal weaponry. Technological changes are what allow this broadened pool of potential recruits to be turned into able soldiers. When thinking about military operations, we typically focus on the most complex and expensive weapons systems, such as missiles, tanks, and aircraft carriers. But the weapons that shape most conflicts around the globe are the ones that are the simplest and least costly.

These "small arms," or "light weapons," include rifles, grenades, light machine guns, light mortars, land mines, and other weapons that are "man-portable" (a term often used by the military). Even though they represent less than two percent of the entire global arms trade in terms of cost, these small arms are the weapons most often used both in battle and in attacks on civilians; they have produced almost 90 percent of all casualties in recent wars.5 In just West Africa alone, more than two million people were killed by small arms in the last decade.6

Advances in technology and efficiency of these weapons now permit the transformation of children into fighters equally as lethal as any adult. For most of human history, weapons relied on the brute strength of the operator. They also typically required years of training to master. This obviously prohibited the effective use of children as soldiers. A child who was not physically mature could not bear the physical burdens of serving in the phalanx of the ancient Greek hoplites or carrying the weight of a medieval knight's armor, let alone serve as an effective combatant. Even until just a few generations ago, personal battlefield weapons such as the bolt action rifles of World War II were heavy and bulky, limiting children's participation.7

However, recent improvements in manufacturing, including the incorporation of plastics, mean that modern weapons, particularly automatic rifles, can be configured to be so light that small children can use them as easily and effectively as adults. Just as important, most of these weapons have been simplified in their use, to the extent that they can be stripped, reassembled, and fired by a child under the age of 10. The ubiquitous Russian-designed Kalashnikov AK-47 is a prime example. Having only nine moving parts, it is brutally simple. Interviews reveal that it generally takes children around 30 minutes to learn how to use one.

Along with these improvements in weight and simplicity, vast strides have been made in the lethality of these small weapons. The weapons that children can now fire with ease are a far cry from the spears of the phalanx or the single bolt rifle of the GIs. With just one pull of the trigger, a modern assault rifle in the hands of a child can release a burst of 30 bullets that are lethal more than 400 yards away. Or they can shoot off a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) whose explosions can tear down buildings or maim tens at a time.

Thus, a handful of children can now have the equivalent firepower of an entire regiment of Napoleonic infantry. When targeting unarmed civilians, the results are doubly devastating. Hence, with only a few hours' training, a youngster can be taught all he or she needs to know in order to kill or wound hundreds of people in a matter of minutes.

P. W. Singer is senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of numerous publications on child soldiers and other military issues. This article is excerpted with permission from Children at War, Pantheon, 2005.


1. Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs (Washington, D.C., 2003) and UN Population Fund, State of World Population: Making 1 Billion Count (New York: UNFPA, 2003).

2. Raymond Copson, "AIDS in Africa," Congressional Research Service Issue Brief IB10050, May 14, 2001; International Crisis Group (ICG), "HIV/AIDS as a Security Issue," ICG Report, June 19, 2001,; National Intelligence Council, "The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States," NIE 99-17D, January 2000,; and P. W. Singer, "AIDS and International Security," Survival 44, no. 1 (spring 2002): 145–158.

3. Sharon LaFraniere, "Millions of AIDS Orphans Strain Southern Africa," New York Times, December 24, 2003.

4. "South Africa AIDS Orphans Struggle to Survive,", June 21, 2001; "HIV/AIDS: The Impact on Social and Economic Development," 2001; National Intelligence Council, 2001; UN Population Fund, State of World Population.

5. Michael Klare, "The Kalashnikov Age," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 55, no. 1 (January/February 1999).

6. Robert Neild, "Expose the Unsavory Business Behind Cruel Wars," International Herald Tribune, February 17, 2000.

7. Center for Defense Information (CDI), "The Invisible Soldiers: Child Combatants," Defense Monitor 26, no. 4 (1997).