Investigation: Hundreds of Military Explosives Missing, Some May Have Killed Innocents

December 3, 2021Dustin Jones
missing military explosives

Blocks of C4, pictured above, can be cut into smaller pieces and are easy to mold, making the explosive easier to steal than a serialized weapon. US Army photo by Sgt. Dennis Glass.

The Army recorded 1,900 instances of missing military explosives and ordnance, including C4, TNT, rockets, and armor-piercing grenades, from 2010 to 2020, an investigation by The Associated Press found. Reporters with the AP unearthed the losses this week just as Congress was working to pass legislation that could require each branch to report missing explosives and firearms at the end of each year.

According to the AP, a lack of oversight — coupled with theft, forged documents, and a flawed honor system — resulted in hundreds to thousands of instances of missing explosives in the last decade. And though some missing military explosives and ordnance are eventually recovered, according to the AP, the stolen munitions sometimes claim innocent lives. 

The AP found that an artillery shell exploded in a Mississippi recycling yard this past August, leaving one man dead. Local law enforcement found another shell — this time intact — two days later. The AP reported that investigators believe it came from Camp Shelby, an Army National Guard base approximately 40 miles away, but a National Guard spokesperson said there was no evidence to suggest it came from the camp. 

missing military explosives
Military weapons are stored safely in an armory and returned after each use. However, explosives come from ammo supply points, and munitions that aren’t returned are presumed to have been detonated. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya.

But it’s not just explosives that the military has a hard time accounting for. At least 2,000 firearms, from assault rifles to handguns, were stolen over the last 10 years from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force, according to the AP report.

In Colorado in 2018, investigators found four blocks of C4 and some fuse cord in a Marine veteran’s home after his father reached out to authorities. The veteran had also stolen eight 40 mm armor-piercing grenades. 

Over the 10-year period, the Army listed approximately 1,900 missing explosive entries, most of which were C4 or TNT. But other missing items included artillery, 40 mm grenades, hand grenades, land mines, and mortars. The Army told the AP about half of the explosives were recovered. However, the entries didn’t always list the number or weight of the explosives missing, so the exact sum of the still-unaccounted-for ordnance is unknown.

missing military explosives
Some 40 mm grenades come off the load, assemble, and pack line during production at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant. Army Photo by the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant.

After the AP reported on the military’s missing firearms earlier this year, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent a letter to Pentagon leaders, requesting answers to several questions regarding existing security measures and how they might be improved.    

Next year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act may require each branch to submit a count of missing weapons and explosives to Congress at the end of every year. The future of that bill, however, is unclear, as the House and Senate debate what measures will be included in the final version of the massive bill.

The AP also found that Marines lost thousands of 40 mm grenades and hundreds of pounds of explosives, though the Marine Corps noted that much of the missing materiel had been found, and some may have been reported missing because of paperwork mistakes or other human errors rather than loss or theft.

The Air Force reported that about 50 pounds of C4, dozens of 40 mm grenades, and more than 800 feet of detonation cord went missing and were never recovered. 

Twenty hand grenades were stolen from the Navy, but 18 were recovered, the Navy told the AP. However, another 24 grenades were reported missing from 2012 and are unaccounted for.

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Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones

Dustin Jones is a former senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine covering military and intelligence news. Jones served four years in the Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado and Columbia University. He has worked as a reporter in Southwest Montana and at NPR. A New Hampshire native, Dustin currently resides in Southern California.

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