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How to keep ammunition out of the hands of terrorists

© Reuter Ho New

Gillian Goh and Christopher Clark of the UN explain how new international guidelines could help put small arms and ammunitions further from the reach of terror groups, prevent fraud and reduce accidents

Imagine the power of 6,300 metric tons of ammunition ranging from small arms bullets to grenades to 14.5 millimeter shells. That is the quantity of arms stockpiles that is suggested may exist in a country like Afghanistan alone.

Colonel Ronald Green, director of logistics for the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, has been reported as saying that “concerns that some could be stolen and used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) keeps me up at night.”

But IEDs can be made from a wide range of non-military components, such as nail polish and fertilizers. So why would terrorists and armed groups want to steal arms stockpiles?

"Concerns that some of the 6,300 metric tons of ammunition ranging from small arms bullets to grenades to 14.5 millimeter shells could be stolen and used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) keeps me up at night."

Colonel Ronald Green, director of logistics for the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan

The answer is that the construction, and to an extent the deployment, of IEDs is considerably easier if pre-manufactured explosives or complete rounds of ammunition are available – instead of having to make the IEDs from scratch.

Military stockpiles also frequently contain demolition stores, such as detonators, detonating cord, and plastic explosives, that can help construction of IEDs.

A 2008 report by the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on conventional ammunition noted that unsecured and poorly managed stockpiles allow the diversion of ammunition to illicit use. This may constitute a source of supply for the construction of IEDs.

Ammunition diverted from national stockpiles can also find its way into civil wars, insurgencies, terrorism, crime and other armed violence, thus fuelling national and regional instability and threatening the security of States.

© Reuter Photographer

The Group also underscored the importance of security when transporting ammunition to reduce the risk of theft, loss and diversion. Practical intervention to prevent illicit access to these elements is required, including the securing of national stockpiles of ammunition.

On this basis, the Group of Experts report recommended that “technical guidelines for the stockpile management of conventional ammunition, which would be available for States to use on a voluntary basis, should be developed within the United Nations”.

So what are these guidelines?

The guidelines, entitled ‘International Ammunition Technical Guidelines’ or IATG, are developed using a three-tiered progressive approach: basic, intermediate, advanced (1/2/3). This way, states can improve their stockpile security using the level one guidelines even if they do not have resources at the outset, and then progressively implement higher standards as time goes on

To date, 12 volumes addressing the whole life management of ammunition – from transport to storage to destruction – have been drafted.

Ammunition and weapons should be transported separately from each other when moved by a vehicle. This helps ensure that if a cargo is stolen, it is not immediately usable

The guidelines illustrate clear measures for

  • ensuring security from diversion during transport of ammunition (principle of separation)
  • enhancing security in storage facilities to prevent theft (marking, accounting)
  • security and counter-diversion to help prevent large-scale diversion of ammunition.

© Reuter Amir Cohen

How are these guidelines used as a counter-terrorism measure?

1. Provision on transportation helpful to reducing diversion for making IEDs

First on the list is that the guidelines ensure security from diversion during the transport of ammunition. The IATG recommend a general security principle of separation: that means ammunition and weapons should be transported separately from each other when moved by a vehicle. This helps ensure that if a cargo is stolen, it is not immediately usable.

This principle of separation can easily also apply to IED components. For instance, detonators and explosives could also be separately transported.

2. Effective marking and accounting systems to prevent theft

The guidelines also provide clear provisions for the marking and packaging of ammunition, inventory management and stocktaking which help prevent thefts and diversions from stockpiles.

For instance, they recommend that markings should be applied to ammunition and its packaging that

  • provide information to enable the explosives to be stored, handled and transported correctly;
  • assist in the identification of the nature of the ammunition, and
  • assist in proper accounting and control procedures;

Discrepancies, loss and theft become quickly known when these measures are applied together with effective accounting procedures. Good accounting also serves as a deterrent, because potential thieves among the staff know that what they take will not go undetected.

3. Security Principles

The guidelines provide a clear classification of items which may be particularly attractive to criminals and terrorist organisations. The guidelines stipulate that these items should be subject to more stringent security than other ammunition items. These items include potential components of IEDs such as detonators and various types of explosives.

How are these classifications used?

Some examples of the counter-diversion principles found in the guidelines include:

  • Disruption of the operation of illicit networks: such as blacklisting certain aircraft, rescinding licenses for the brokering of arms and military goods, with the aim to disrupt the network or at least cause it delays.
  • Cross checking import/ export/ transport documents to look for inconsistencies which may indicate an illicit shipment.
  • And of course the guidelines contain principles for enhancing international cooperation, support and information sharing, which is key in addressing this global issue.

Good accounting also serves as a deterrent, because potential thieves among the staff know that what they take will not go undetected

The ‘International Ammunition Technical Guidelines’ are in the final drafting stages. Their completion and validation is expected in 2011. After that, the implementation phase will begin.

The United Nations would like to ensure that they are as globally applicable as possible - because they deal with a problem that is global.

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