Ammunition beyond what a host nation requires for its legitimate defense needs is simply not worth the cost to secure it or worth the risk posed by an accident or its theft. Poor security and accountability of conventional ammunition can lead to its theft and illicit use in crimes or terrorist activities. Improper management of ammunition stockpiles poses grave dangers to the local population and to those who attempt to use it. Poor storage, transportation, and stockpile surveillance procedures can lead to deadly ammunition accidents caused by the deterioration of the propellant stabilizer in ammunition beyond its serviceable use.
The cost in life, property, and trust in the governments who do not do what is in their power to prevent such catastrophes bears witness to the valuable lessons to be learned by following international best practices for the stockpile management of conventional ammunition.
Dangers posed by obsolete and surplus conventional ammunition
What is a gun without any bullets? In contrast, worldwide reporting of Improvised Explosive Devises (IED’s) has demonstrated ammunition can be lethal without a corresponding weapon. Poorly secured and unaccounted for ammunition can be easily diverted from national stockpiles and used in crimes, terrorist attacks, civil wars, insurgencies, and contribute to national, and even regional instability. In times of political instability, these stockpiles pose attractive targets for angry civilians and rebel groups that will use the ammunition and the corresponding weapons for their own purposes, threatening the political stability of host governments.
Even though the theft of ammunition is a grave concern, the effects of ammunition depot explosive accidents pose the most salient risk. News of ammunition depot explosions makes headlines in several countries worldwide every year. These deadly incidents almost always involved casualties, including numerous deaths. Often these events result in significant, widespread destruction of property and infrastructure, damage to the environment, temporary deterioration of air quality, and the displacement of individuals who were left homeless or cannot return to their communities due to the threat posed by unexploded ordnance in their neighborhoods. The cost in property damage, reconstruction, lives, and reparations to those who lost their homes and livelihood can run host governments into the millions, not to mention damage their political reputations as their citizens wonder how such incidents could occur.
There is recognition that the United Nations has a key role to play in providing the necessary international support, advisory and coordination mechanisms to improve the quality of conventional ammunition stockpile management. There are also regional organizations such as OSCE, NATO, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Regional Center for Small Arms in East Africa (RECSA), which can also provide support, technical advice, and coordinate assistance for host nations who request it. National, regional, and international communities have put together best practice guidelines for ‘stockpile management’ which incorporate the safe and secure accounting, storage, transportation, handling and disposal of conventional ammunition.
Basic principles for ammunition handling
The MSAG adheres to international best practices, mainly adopted from the OSCE, but incorporates other international and national best practices as well. The MSAG shares its expertise among its members so it can better assist the foreign governments who request the assistance of our participating states or the MSAG as a whole. As a general framework, the MSAG has adopted the ”OSCE Handbook of Best Practices on Conventional Ammunition”. Full implementation of international guidelines, however, has significant cost implications. MSAG partner nations may be able to assist in providing host nations who request it a graduated improvement recommendations in safety and security within an integrated risk management process that takes into consideration availability of funding and the political landscape for change.