Pentagon Must Now Account for Missing Weaponry in Annual Report to Congress

Amid reports of U.S. military weapons reaching civilians, Congress is putting put more responsibility on the Pentagon by requiring it to provide lawmakers with an annual weapons loss report.

Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which the weapons report falls under, this month, and President Joe Biden is slated to sign it soon.

The Pentagon and the military branches began looking into their weapons losses more deeply when the Associated Press began publishing findings in its AWOL Weapons Investigation, the first being published in June.

Between 2010 and 2020, the AP reported at least 2,000 firearms had gotten lost or stolen, though many were eventually recovered. These include assault rifles, armor-piercing grenades, machine guns, handguns and more.

These findings prompted Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to tell officials in all military branches to compile their own data to see how it compared to the AP's. The numbers were slightly lower than what the AP found, but the news organization said this is due to the military's numbers being "incomplete."

Also, in the past, different agencies would have to self-report any confirmed weapons thefts and recoveries to the FBI-run National Crime Information Center. Under the new law, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin would be required to make all the reports himself.

stolen firearm, Massachusetts, gun
Overall, the Associated Press has found that at least 2,000 firearms from the Army, Marines, Navy or Air Force were lost or stolen during the 2010s. Above, this evidence photo from the criminal complaint of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts v. Ashley Bigsbee for illegal possession of a stolen firearm on Nov. 15, 2015, in Suffolk, Massachusetts, shows one of ten M11 semiautomatic handguns that former Army Reserve member James Morales stole from the Lincoln Stoddard Army Reserve Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. File/U.S. District Court for Massachusetts via AP

Pentagon officials have said that they can account for more than 99.9 percent of firearms, and take weapons security very seriously. Still, when AP published its first report on missing firearms in June, Gen. Milley 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.

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.

The Pentagon reluctantly shared the statistics it collected, which Milley's office has provided to Capitol Hill. The official numbers are lower than what AP reported — but also incomplete, because some services failed to include stolen weapons as documented by the military's own criminal investigators.

The number of missing, lost or stolen firearms was "approximately 1,540" from 2010 through this summer, according to LTC Uriah Orland, a spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The majority have been recovered, he said. That total compares to the at least 2,000 firearms that AP had reported for 2010 through 2020, a tally was based on the military's own data, internal memoranda, criminal investigation case files and other sources.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy. In conducting their analyses, each service used different standards and systems. Despite the detailed data search by each service, AP found lost or stolen items that were not in their official accounting.

Relying on its official weapons registry, the Navy data represented that none of its shotguns have been stolen and its only explosives losses during the 2010s were 20 concussion grenades. AP identified several shotguns and dozens of armor-piercing grenades, based on case files from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

The Marines decided that any weapon that vanished in a combat zone didn't count — even in cases, for example, when a rifle fell from a vehicle or aircraft, or disappeared from living quarters on overseas base. Their total of "unaccounted for" firearms since 2010 was 31.

The biggest explanation for the difference between AP's numbers and official numbers is a significant downward revision of Army totals.

In June, AP reported the Army couldn't account for more than 1,500 weapons. Most of that total derived from internal Army memos that said 1,300 rifles and handguns were lost or stolen between 2013 and 2019. The Army had said the memos could include duplications and combat losses, which AP excluded when known.

Responding to Milley's order, personnel hand-searched records. Their conclusion was that, in the 2010s, only 469 firearms were missing.

Army officials didn't detail which weapons they excluded or their criteria for reaching the total, which AP was unable to verify independently.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

army, Letterkenny Army Depot, Pennsylvania
The Pentagon will have to report any weapons losses or thefts to lawmakers if President Joe Biden signs the National Defense Authorization Act. Above, in this July 13, 2017, image provided by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command on Feb. 9, a storage container of explosive ordnance shows signs of theft after arriving at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. File/U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP

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