New Reforms Target U.S. Military’s Missing Weapons Problem

(AP) -
A storage container of explosive ordnance shows signs of theft after arriving at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP, File)

The Department of Defense is overhauling how it keeps track of its guns and explosives, and Congress is requiring more accountability from the Pentagon — responses to an Associated Press investigation that showed lost or stolen military weapons were reaching America’s streets.

The missing weaponry includes assault rifles, machine guns, handguns, armor-piercing grenades, artillery shells, mortars, grenade launchers and plastic explosives.

The Pentagon will now have to give lawmakers an annual report on weapons loss and security under the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress approved this month and President Joe Biden is expected to sign. As AP’s AWOL Weapons investigation showed, military officials weren’t advising Congress even as guns and explosives continued to disappear.

To meet those reporting requirements, the military is modernizing how it accounts for its millions of firearms and mountains of explosives.

“Clearly the accountability on this issue was stopping at too low of a level,” said U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, a U.S. Army veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee who supported the reforms. With the new requirements, “if there are hundreds of missing weapons in that report, members of Congress are going to see it and they are going to be asked about it publicly and held accountable for it.”

Pentagon officials have said that they can account for more than 99.9% of firearms, and take weapons security very seriously. Still, when AP published its first report on missing firearms in June, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would consider a “systematic fix.”

In response, the Army, the largest branch with the most firearms, took on a major overhaul of how units report missing, lost or stolen weapons. Paper records are giving way to a digital form, and a central logistics operations center is collecting and verifying serious incident reports that — as with other armed services — didn’t always go all the way up the chain of command.

The new system uses an existing software system called Vantage to give commanders a real-time look at what is unaccounted for, Scott Forster, an operations research analyst at the Army, said in a briefing with AP.

Other changes will affect how the military responds to law enforcement investigations.

When a gun is recovered or sought during a criminal case, the Defense Department’s Small Arms and Light Weapons Registry is supposed to determine the last known location or unit responsible. But the registry’s information was inaccurate and responses to law enforcement weren’t timely, according to internal Army documents obtained by the AP.

(The Army runs the registry for the Pentagon.)

The Army is now developing an app that would search each service’s own property record databases, according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley.

The new law also requires the Defense Secretary to report confirmed thefts or recovery of weapons to the National Crime Information Center, which the FBI runs. Military regulations had required the services and units to self-report losses; the onus will now be on the highest level of the Pentagon.

This summer, the Defense Logistics Agency began reporting to the Pentagon losses and thefts of firearms that the military loaned to civilian agencies under the Law Enforcement Support Office program. In its data release to AP, the Pentagon reported that 461 of these firearms had vanished, with 109 later recovered. AP’s reporting did not include LESO weapons.

After the AP’s initial report published in June, Gen. Milley tasked the service branches with scrubbing their data on firearms losses since 2010 — the time period AP studied.