New reforms target problem of missing US military weapons
The Defense Department is reviewing the way it keeps track of its weapons and explosives, and Congress is demanding greater accountability from the Pentagon – responses to an Associated Press investigation which showed that lost and stolen military weapons were reaching the streets of the United States.
The missing armament includes assault rifles, machine guns, handguns, armor-piercing grenades, artillery shells, mortars, grenade launchers and plastic explosives.
The Pentagon will now have to provide lawmakers with an annual report on lost weapons and security under the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress approved this month and which President Joe Biden is expected to sign . As the AP investigation into the AWOL weapons showed, military officials were not advising Congress even as guns and explosives continued to disappear.
To meet these reporting requirements, the military is modernizing the way it accounts for its millions of guns and mountains of explosives.
“It is clear that the responsibility on this issue was too low,” said US Representative Jason Crow, D-Colorado, a US Army veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee which supported the reforms. With the new requirements, “If there are hundreds of weapons missing from this report, members of Congress will see it and they will be publicly questioned about it and held accountable.”
Pentagon officials have said they can account for over 99.9% of guns and take gun safety very seriously. Yet when AP released its first report on the missing firearms in June, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would consider a “systematic solution.”
In response, the military, the largest branch with the most guns, has undertaken a major overhaul of the way units report missing, lost or stolen guns. Paper files give way to a digital form, and a central logistics operations center collects and verifies reports of serious incidents which, like other armed forces, do not always travel up the chain of command.
The new system uses an existing software system called Vantage to give commanders a real-time snapshot of what’s not being counted, Army operations research analyst Scott Forster said in a briefing with AP.
Other changes will affect the way the military responds to law enforcement investigations.
When a firearm is recovered or searched during a criminal case, the Department of Defense’s small arms and light weapons registry is supposed to determine the last known location or unit responsible. But the information in the register was inaccurate and responses to law enforcement were not timely, according to internal army documents obtained by the PA. (The military manages the Pentagon registry.)
The military is currently developing an app that would search each department’s property registration databases, according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley.
The new law also requires the Secretary of Defense to report confirmed thefts or recovered weapons to the National Crime Information Center, run by the FBI. Military regulations required services and units to report casualties themselves; responsibility will now rest at the highest level of the Pentagon.
The other armed forces are also implementing reforms.
The Marine Corps said it was developing internal procedures for better oversight through increased inspections of units. The Navy required units to notify a higher headquarters when they reported weapons losses. The Air Force replaced its ammunition ownership record system with a commercial application.
This summer, the Defense Logistics Agency began reporting losses and thefts to the Pentagon of guns the military has loaned to civilian agencies under the Law Enforcement Support Office program. In its data submission to AP, the Pentagon reported that 461 of those guns were missing, 109 of which were later recovered. AP reports did not include LESO weapons.
After the PA’s initial report released in June, General Milley tasked the service branches with cleaning up their data on gun losses since 2010 – the period AP investigates.
The Pentagon reluctantly shared the statistics it gathered, which Milley’s office provided to Capitol Hill. The official figures are lower than those reported by AP – but also incomplete, as some services did not include stolen weapons, as documented by military criminal investigators.
The number of missing, lost or stolen firearms was “around 1,540” from 2010 to this summer, according to LTC Uriah Orland, spokesperson for the office of the secretary of defense. The majority has been recovered, he said. That total compares to at least 2,000 firearms reported by AP from 2010 to 2020, a tally was based on the military’s own data, internal memoranda, criminal investigation records and other sources.
There are several reasons for the deviation. To perform their analyzes, each department used different standards and systems. Despite the detailed data search by each department, AP found lost or stolen items that were not in their official accounts.
Relying on its official gun registry, Navy data showed that none of its shotguns were stolen and its only explosive losses during the 2010s were 20 concussion grenades. AP has identified several shotguns and dozens of armor-piercing grenades, based on Naval Criminal Investigative Service records.
The Marines decided that any weapon that went missing in a combat zone did not count, even in cases, for example, when a rifle fell from a vehicle or plane, or disappeared from living quarters of ‘a base abroad. Their total “not found” firearms since 2010 was 31.
The biggest explanation for the difference between PA numbers and official numbers is a significant downward revision in Army totals.
In June, AP reported that the military could count no more than 1,500 weapons. Most of that total came from internal military memos indicating that 1,300 rifles and handguns were lost or stolen between 2013 and 2019. The military said the memos could include duplications and losses in combat, which AP excluded when it was known.
Responding to Milley’s order, staff manually searched the files. Their conclusion was that, in the 2010s, only 469 firearms were missing.
Army officials did not specify which weapons they excluded or their criteria for reaching the total, which AP could not independently verify.
Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee; contact her at https://twitter.com/kmhall. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles; contact him at https://twitter.com/JPritchardAP.
Email the AP Global Investigation Team at [email protected] or via https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://www.apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.