Staying Safe: Effective Weapons and Ammunition Management (WAM) during the COVID-19 Crisis

By: Marco Baccini and Oisin Dawson

The world is currently facing an unprecedented challenge in the form of COVID-19. The pandemic is affecting people’s lives across the globe, and predictions speak to the crisis continuing for a while yet [1].

The UN Secretary General has appealed for an immediate ceasefire in all corners of the globe[2] so as to concentrate focus on countering the virus. A laudable effort, but though they may fall silent, the management of weapons and ammunition in the current climate has assumed even greater importance. As military personnel in many countries are tasked with pandemic response, confined to barracks, or, in some cases, falling victims to the pandemic, we may see a shortage in staff capacity — including that devoted to securing weapons and ammunition. This calls for due diligence, as lapses in safety checks and security arrangements have the potential to exacerbate an already fragile situation.

In this blog post, drawing on the Small Arms Survey’s extensive knowledge and experience on the topic, we highlight a number of measures, related to management and accounting, safety and security, as well as hygiene, to maintain an effective weapons and ammunition management (WAM) system during this very challenging period. We do not provide an exhaustive list of WAM practices applicable to all situations, but hope that this nonetheless serves as a timely reminder and helpful note for those involved in the safe and secure management of weapons and ammunition.

Management and accounting

Countries around the world are seeking to apply the weapons and ammunition management and accounting practices contained in international guidance and standards, such as the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATGs) and the Modular Small-arms-control Implementation Compendium (MOSAIC). However, with the potential for standard procedures to come under strain for reasons such as staff shortages and illness, the following might be worth keeping in mind:

  • Accounting: Effective weapons and ammunition accounting does not have to be complicated. In certain situations, a simple Excel spreadsheet or field log book with weapon serial numbers, allocations to individuals, locations of weapons, and the date-time group of checks can be very useful.
  • Ammunition: Accounting for ammunition does not always receive the same level of attention as that afforded to small arms, particularly in the field. The regular counting of ammunition carried by individuals, along with that held centrally — even in makeshift locations — helps in the collation of usage rates and in discouraging theft and other forms of diversion.
  • Checks: Maintaining some form of regular, physical checks of weapons and ammunition held by those on field deployments is just as important (or arguably more so) as checks in static locations. Making this part of a standard daily routine is widely accepted as good practice.
  • Labelling: the labelling, or even better, the marking of weapons with individual buttstock numbers can prove a simple and speedy way of checking their presence. (Numbers can be marked on buttstocks in ascending order from 1 up to the total number of weapons in the unit). Likewise, a similar practice can apply for weapons ancillaries such as magazines.
Source: Oisin Dawson

Safety and security

Safety and security arrangements, being part of a comprehensive approach to weapons and ammunition management, are also likely to come under strain during the COVID-19 crisis. The following principles and practices are felt to be especially pertinent at this time:

  • Separation: It is a well-accepted principle that weapons and ammunition should not be stored or transported together (apart from out of operational necessity). Having them co-located renders them an even more attractive target and adds to the risks if they fall into the wrong hands.
  • Centralization: It is not uncommon for ammunition storage sites to be filled only to around 75% capacity so as to allow for sudden surges in supply. In the current circumstances, there might be a good case for exceeding this level through greater centralization in order to reduce the number of individual ammunition stockpiles. This would then lighten the load on supervisory and security staff. Vacated sites, where infrastructure remains, could be secured by skeletal guards and roving patrols.
  • Locks: Padlocked individual ammunition racks inside armouries are a way of providing another layer of security (on top of securing the armoury doors). They impede those trying to seize the weapons and create additional time for launching an effective response.
  • Barriers: Recent experience in a number of national and multilateral peace operations has exposed the susceptibility to attack of armouries and ammunition sites in field operating bases. To mitigate such risks, particularly over the current period of heightened tension, base commanders should consider establishing inner cordons within camps for armouries and separately also for ammunition sites.
  • Quantity: The Small Arms Survey has, over a number of years, identified that one of the main ways by which hostile forces obtain supplies of weapons and ammunition is by seizing them from military patrols. In some cases the hauls, particularly of ammunition, have far outweighed the patrol’s realistic needs. Matching the amount of ammunition (and weaponry) taken on patrols to realistic consumption rates would be a way of reducing the risk.
  • Cleaning: The regular and appropriate care and maintenance of weapons, ancillaries, and ammunition, as a mainstay of safety and operational effectiveness, might fall victim to sudden gaps in command chains, logistics staff, and weapons technicians. To mitigate these risks, refresher training for all users on weapons cleaning and maintenance could prove beneficial, as might ensuring adequate supplies of cleaning materials. Instigating regular weapon cleaning parades and protecting outdoor stocks of ammunition from climate extremes could also pay dividends.
Source: Oisin Dawson

Hygiene factors

Contaminated weapons and ammunition can lead to the spread of the virus. Adopting appropriate mitigating measures therefore merits appropriate attention.

  • Sanitization: From the information now emerging on the nature of COVID-19, it would seem that the virus is capable of being detected up to 72 hours after application to stainless steel and plastics[3]. If correct, it will be important to avoid weapons and ammunition becoming a source of transmission. Where practicable it would seem prudent to sanitize weapons, ancillaries, and ammunition — at the very least before transfers from person to person.
  • Restrictions: Armed Forces that allow individuals to take weapons and ancillaries back to their homes should consider suspending the practice to reduce potential vectors of virus transmission.

Final thoughts

COVID-19 presents a multifaceted challenge, including to the safe and secure management of weapons and ammunition. We have here highlighted the problem and provided suggestions on actions to take at this critical time. The Survey will continue to monitor the situation closely and will issue further suggestions when we have new information to share.

Marco Baccini, an officer in the Swiss Armed Forces, and Oisin Dawson, an Ammunition Technical Officer, Irish Defence Forces, are the Survey’s weapons and ammunition management specialists.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.

[1] https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sgsm20032.doc.htm

[2] https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-03-23/secretary-generals-appeal-for-global-ceasefire

[3] ‘Aerosol and surface stability of SARS-Cov-2 as compared with SARS-Cov-1’. The New England Journal of Medicine; 17 March 2020.

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Providing expertise on all aspects of small arms and armed violence.

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