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Losing Track of Our Weapons

October 25, 1987

In September, 1986, the U.S. Army Missile Command went looking for 24 shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles assigned to American forces in Europe. Each of the missiles requested was identified by individual serial number, and the Army was given a month to locate them. It took nearly one year, though, before all the missiles were found. Three months into that search, after only 15 missiles had been accounted for, Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) asked the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, to find out what was going on. What the GAO found was a story of frightening laxity.

GAO investigators visited eight Army battalions in West Germany. At four sites, Stingers were discovered in structures that came nowhere near meeting the Army's secure storage requirements, which call for missiles to be kept in underground bunkers with steel doors and locks. In the most flagrant example of inattention to safety and security, the missiles were found housed in lightweight metal sheds that had the word "Stinger" plainly stenciled on the side. Anti-tank and other missiles were found stored in similarly unacceptable conditions. The GAO saw large holes in fences at storage sites, gates that could be lifted off their hinges, broken locks. At one guard post a GAO investigator found no guard, only a note that said "Back in five minutes."

The U.S. armed forces keep $170 billion worth of munitions and spare parts in storage. The GAO suspects this supply network of "leaking like a sieve." The Army claims that its inventory records are accurate nearly 90% of the time; the GAO says 50% or less would be a better estimate. If the experience of the other services is similar, then even under the best conditions the military has no idea where $15 billion or $20 billion in material may be on any given day. That includes highly secret electronic gear, along with deadly explosives.

A few weeks ago Stinger parts were found aboard a disabled Iranian gunboat in the Persian Gulf. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger explained this shocking discovery by saying that Iranian forces at some earlier point had hijacked U.S.-supplied Stingers from Afghan resistance fighters. Maybe. But the the inadequate protection given Stinger and other missiles at U.S. bases in West Germany clearly adds plausibility to concerns that deadly American weapons might all too easily fall into the hands of terrorists and other enemies of the United States. Promised Senate hearings into this matter should give a better idea about how great the danger is.

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