Explosives and ammunition are disappearing from United States Army and other military stockpiles and flowing into a lucrative American black market for bullets and bombs. According to a former US Army Special Forces munitions officer, theft and pilfering of bullets, grenades, and other lethal items have become common among soldiers and military officers stationed in the US.
``It is Army-wide and almost soldier-wide,'' the former officer, Shawn F. Helmer, told a Senate Armed Services Committee panel Wednesday. ``As far as fighting units are concerned, it is from the private on up,'' says Mr. Helmer, who is awaiting trial in Florida on charges that he tried to sell a large cache of stolen munitions to undercover federal agents posing as arms buyers.
The illicit efforts of Helmer and others represent part of the grass-roots supply end of a murky international black market in US arms and spare parts that sometimes find their way into the hands of arms merchants working for the Iranian government.
The Reagan administration has brought the upper echelon of the illicit arms market into sharp focus with recent reports of covert White House arms shipments to Iran, which led to the release of three Americans held hostage in Lebanon. [At press time the President was scheduled to address the nation on television Thursday night regarding the administration's recent dealings with Iran.]
In carrying out the reported arms deals, US operatives apparently mimicked techniques routinely used by international black-market arms dealers trying to circumvent the US boycott of Iran and the US Arms Export Control Act. While the White House operation apparently used the black market as a cover for covert shipments to Iran, no evidence suggests that any of the arms sent by the White House had been stolen from military facilities.
But other such shipments have included pilfered and stolen materiel. Last year federal agents broke up a sophisticated international smuggling ring operating on the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which was reported to have shipped some $5 million in spare parts for F-14 jet fighters to Iran.
Indeed, though the illicit arms market is patronized by an array of arms dealers, drug runners, gun buffs, and political extremists of the right and left, federal officials say that among the most active black-market arms merchants in the US in recent years have been Iranians. The US Customs Service has prosecuted roughly 40 cases in the past five years of Iranians attempting to set up secret deals for banned spare parts and munitions. In several cases, would-be arms dealers are today serving prison terms for trying to arrange the same type of shipments apparently called for in the White House's secret agreement with Iranian officials.
In New York, a group of 13 people, including a retired Israeli general, is facing trial in US District Court on charges that it conspired to ship $2 billion in US aircraft, weapons, spare parts, and munitions to Iran via Israel.
Pre-trial arguments are scheduled to begin Monday, with defense attorneys expected to argue that their clients were under the impression that the Iranian arms deal had been sanctioned by the US and Israel.
Officials and arms dealers say that most of the war materiel that ultimately turns up on the international black market is initially purchased through legitimate channels dealing in outdated or surplus munitions and equipment. Though it is impossible to determine how much of the black market comprises stolen US munitions, a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report offers some clues.
A 1984 amnesty program designed to encourage soldiers to turn in pilfered supplies at two US munitions supply centers in Europe resulted in the return of some 200 tons of ammunition. A similar program has recently been initiated at weapons supply centers in the US.
The GAO audit discovered inaccurate record keeping and inadequate physical security at munitions supply centers throughout the US armed forces. In addition, a US Navy investigation of the Kitty Hawk-Iranian smuggling ring revealed that inventory-management deficiencies on the ship were systemic to the Navy's entire seaborne supply system.
A task force of the Senate Armed Services Committee chaired by Pete Wilson (R) of California is investigating the theft of US munitions and materiel and is looking into how the flow can be stopped.
Part of Senator Wilson's concern is that US military equipment and munitions may be finding their way into the hands of US-based criminal groups as well as international terrorists. He notes that in the past decade there have been 445 bombings in the US carried out with military explosives.
Gen. Charles M. Murray, director of the Army's office of supply and maintenance, says the Army has closed loopholes in its supply operations, making it harder to subvert the system. Helmer, a former ammunition supply sergeant at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Wash., told the Senate panel fragmentation grenades costing the US government $8.61 were being sold on the black market for $50. ``You could get as much as $1,000 for a LAW [light anti-tank weapon],'' Helmer said.
Helmer admitted that when he left the Army three years ago he stole 5 LAW rockets, 59 fragmentation grenades, 110 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives, 3,000 feet of military detonating cord, and 60 Claymore antipersonnel mines. He says he took the munitions for use in Central America where he planned to work as a mercenary. When the job fell through, Helmer stored the munitions in his garage for three years until he tried to sell them to the undercover federal agents. According to a Senate source, Helmer's munitions were never detected by Fort Lewis officials as missing.