The U.S. Military Doesn't Even Track How Many Weapons It Loses, And It Has Lost Thousands

A scathing report details how over 2,000 weapons have gone missing from military arsenals in the last decade alone and the data is far from complete.

Military's Missing Weapons
USMC/Sgt Robert Gavaldon

A damning investigative report published by The Associated Press today details how over 2,000 weapons have gone missing from military arsenals between 2010 and 2019. While the data set was far from complete, what the outlet did obtain shows a worrying pattern of lost and stolen weapons, some of which ended up in the hands of criminals who used them in the commission of violent crimes, while others were even simply discarded in public parks.

The Associated Press's investigation states that, between 2010 and 2019, these weapons went missing or were deliberately taken from a wide variety of locations, including armories, warehouses, firing ranges, Navy vessels, or even while in transit. Reasons cited in the report included unlocked doors, burglary, security personnel falling asleep, or lapses in surveillance and other security systems. 1,504 weapons were reported missing or stolen from the Army, 211 from the Navy, 204 from the Marines, and 39 were categorized as "Other," which presumably includes the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense security forces like the Pentagon Force Protection Agency.

While the Marines and Navy offered their own figures about weapons lost or stolen throughout the last decade, the Army and Air Force did not willingly provide The Associated Press with exact numbers about how many of their weapons were unaccounted for, so the report instead relied on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for military criminal case files, as well as internal military small arms registries. One of those FOIA requests filed with the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General revealed 1,303 lost firearms from the Army alone. The AP reported the Air Force was less cooperative:

The Air Force was the only service branch not to release data. It first responded to several Freedom of Information Act requests by saying no records existed. Air Force representatives then said they would not provide details until yet another FOIA request, filed 1.5 years ago, was fully processed.

USAF/Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya

An airman returns an M4 carbine to storage at Holloman Air Force Base.

Of these guns and other weapon systems cited in the AP report, many of which remain unaccounted for, 1,179 were rifles, while another 694 were handguns. A total of 74 machine guns went missing, as did 11 shotguns. Close to 100 more were reported to be grenade launchers, rocket launchers, or mortars. 

The AP did not specify which specific weapons were stolen or lost in most cases. M4 rifles are cited in a few incidents, as are Beretta M9 handguns. In the cases of the other classes of weapons cited in the report, the classes used represent a wide range of weapons with different levels of lethality. Rocket launchers, for example, come in both reloadable and non-reloadable forms. "Machine guns" as a whole also represents a wide variety of weapons, some of which can fire of thousands of rounds per minute and would be absolutely devastating if used in a criminal or terrorist act.

Another seven missing weapons were reported as “other.” It is unknown what those may represent, or if they are merely uncategorizable based on a scarcity of data in the reports obtained by The Associated Press. From the lack of clarity in the dataset, these could be almost anything ranging from a knife to a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. military has also infamously lost six of its nuclear weapons due to aircraft crashes or other mishaps. One of those incidents remains classified to this day, but is thought to be related to the loss of the USS Scorpion, which sank mysteriously with all hands aboard in the North Atlantic Ocean in May 1968.

DOD

Even military vehicles get stolen from time to time, such as in 2018 when a Virginia Army National Guardsmen stole an M577 armored command vehicle and led police on a 60-mile chase. In 1995, an M60A3 Patton tank was stolen from a National Guard armory in San Diego, after which it was taken on a rampage that left dozens of cars flattened before police were able to take out its driver.

“The military’s weapons are especially vulnerable to corrupt insiders responsible for securing them,” the AP’s report reads. “They know how to exploit weak points within armories or the military’s enormous supply chains. Often from lower ranks, they may see a chance to make a buck from a military that can afford it.” The AP cites an NCIS investigation in 2014 which discovered four M4 trigger assemblies went missing from the Navy's Special Boat Team Twelve, presumably for sale on the black market or even on sites like eBay. These assemblies can be used to convert civilian AR-15 models to fully automatic weapons. 

Earlier this year, an Army trainee fled Fort Jackson with an M4 Carbine which he used to hijack a schoolbus full of children. Luckily, the assailant left the bus without harming anyone aboard. 

Other reasons cited were improper or insufficient adherence to security protocols, as was the case at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune where "authorities often have an open missing weapons investigation" according to the AP. The AP's report cites an incident in which a Beretta M9 was stolen from Camp Lejeune, only to later turn up in a drug bust in Baltimore. Another missing M9, taken from an unlocked National Guard armory along with six automatic weapons, a grenade launcher, and four other M9s, was recovered by law enforcement in South Carolina in 2017 during a domestic dispute. 

In 2017, a box containing 32 40mm MK-19 grenade launcher rounds was stolen from an ammunition train while in transit. The box showed up eight months later in an Atlanta suburb tucked behind bushes at a private residence. Only 30 grenades remained in the box. The other two were never found.

The AP also cites a theft at Fort Irwin in California in which 26 AK-74s were stolen a decade ago and keep turning up in the hands of gang members throughout the state. The Department of Defense (DOD) primarily procures these weapons from friendly third-party nations for use in Special Operations Command (SOCOM) familiarization training.

The AP published a separate piece the same day as their larger missing weapons report which details how some of the military’s missing weapons stolen from the Lincoln Stoddard Army Reserve Center ended up being found “in a trash bag in a Bronx park near Yankee Stadium.”

Some of the weapons were lost overseas, such as when a Navy SEAL lost his sidearm in Lebanon during a fight in a restaurant. 65 Beretta M9s were stolen and never recovered in Afghanistan when a padlock was cut off of a fence. 

Prior to 2017, the Pentagon was required to share annual data about stolen or lost weapons with Congress. That requirement lapsed, but some members of Congress want to restore it, especially in light of the AP's report. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called the report “absolutely blood curdling” in a hearing with Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth held on June 15, the same day the report was published. Wormuth assured Blumenthal that the Army is taking the matter seriously and will look into it. Blumenthal repeatedly pressed Wormuth for an answer on whether or not the Army would commit to regularly reporting lost weapon data to Congress, to which Wormuth replied the Army “would be open to a reporting requirement.”

According to a 2018 estimate published by the Small Arms Survey, the U.S. military possesses some 4.5 million firearms. Thus, while 2,060 can seem like a small number, the potential damge even one of these weapons could do in the wrong hands makes each one a serious case. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the AP in an interview that “Though the numbers are small, one is too many,” adding that the military safely accounts for the overwhelming majority of its weapons each year. “We have a very large inventory of several million of these weapons,” Kirby told the AP. “We take this very seriously and we think we do a very good job. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t losses. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t mistakes made.”

USMC/Sgt Robert Gavaldon

A U.S. Marine inspects a M16A4 rifle at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

The new report about the military's missing weapons highlights the inherent dangers in storing weapons and other dangerous equipment close to civilian populations. Criminals can break into military bases as well as any other building if proper security measures aren't in place. Furthermore, service members are human like anyone else, and aren't infallible when it comes to having lapses in judgment leading to the theft or misuse of weapons. There is a reason for strict security protocols in place at military installations, and the AP's investigation reveals there could be more security gaps at domestic military facilities than the Pentagon realizes.

Above all, the AP's latest report should be a call to action for Congress to reenact accountability measures that would require the Pentagon to regularly share data about missing weapons. It should not take a national tragedy for the government and the military to fix these problems, however statistically small they may seem. It's important to also note that this recent data is only what we know so far, given that the Air Force did not report any data. Small arms have also been lost en masse on the battlefield or in combat areas, which could make the number of missing or lost weapons far larger if it is not included already in the data provided to the Associated Press. So it very well could be that the data in the AP's report is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lost or stolen weapons.

At the very least, a complete data set over time would certainly help show just how serious the problem actually is. 

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com