Takeaways: AP investigates missing US military explosives

·3 min read
A photo showing a block of TNT as Marines train in the background at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. (U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

The U.S. military cannot account for all its explosives.

An Associated Press investigation has found that weapons of war such as TNT and grenades have vanished from military bases and shipments. All have been stolen from or lost by the U.S. armed forces over the past decade.

A few key takeaways from the latest in AP’s AWOL Weapons investigation:

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FIREPOWER LOST, STOLEN

The explosives that have vanished make a wide-ranging list.

They include hundreds — and possibly thousands — of armor-piercing grenades, and hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives. There are smaller quantities of land mines and rockets, artillery shells and mortars.

Still more explosives were missing, but then recovered.

Many were taken by troops, sometimes covered up by falsified records. In other cases, service members didn’t report explosives as missing, or failed to safeguard them in the first place.

In addition to collecting loss data from the four service branches, The AP unearthed 63 explosives investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Defense Criminal Investigative Service. In a majority, the military didn’t realize explosives were gone until someone found them where they didn't belong.

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MILITARY RESPONDS

Military officials said very few service members are thieves, and that the amounts of explosives are minuscule in the context of overall stockpiles.

The Army said it could account for more than 99.9% of explosives from 2010 through 2020.

When smaller quantities of some explosives vanish, the loss doesn’t need to be reported all the way up the military’s bureaucracy. That means loss and theft numbers collected by the Office of the Secretary of Defense undercount the problem’s full extent. 

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland said the military takes losses very seriously. “We want to get the number to zero, so there is no loss,” he said.

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DEADLY CONSEQUENCES

Civilian deaths from military explosives are uncommon, but they do happen. 

Taking a break from the August heat, Chris Smith was drinking water and chewing tobacco at the recycling yard in Mississippi where he worked when, without warning, he was thrown into the air.

An artillery shell had exploded. His co-worker died after bleeding profusely from his legs. “For no reason at all,” Smith said in an interview.

Two days later, an intact shell was found at the scrap yard. Authorities are investigating whether the shells came from an Army National Guard base about 40 miles away. Mississippi National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Deidre Smith said she has seen no evidence the shell originated at Camp Shelby.

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EXPLOSIVES VS. GUNS

It’s not just explosives. 

The AP’s AWOL Weapons investigation has shown that poor accountability and insider thefts led to the loss of more than 2,000 military firearms since 2010. Some guns were used in civilian crimes, including shootings. 

Explosives are harder to track than firearms.

Troops check guns out, then return them. Explosives are distributed on the understanding they will be detonated. Even with safeguards, those with access to explosives operate on an honor system.

Unlike guns, explosives may not have individual serial numbers for tracking. And, like Play-Doh, plastic explosives can be cut or shaped — making them easy to conceal. 

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Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee; contact her at https://twitter.com/kmhall. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles; contact him at https://twitter.com/JPritchardAP.

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Email AP’s Global Investigations Team at investigative@ap.org or via https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://www.apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.

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