Until recent years, practices around the world saw stockpiled weapons and ammunition being dealt with in a similar fashion, often addressing the subject with security mindset before safety principles. Common approach has been in a secure storage and set of guard, whereas ammunition needs continuous and extensive care during storage, more so than most conventional weapons. Besides the lethality factor that involves unplanned explosions and numerous victims, poor ammunition stockpile management can also lead to diversion from stockpiles through theft and illicit trade.

Small Arms Survey database 1979-2014 on Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites, update 4 March 2015, www.smallarmssurvey.org
Small Arms Survey database 1979-2014 on Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites, update 4 March 2015, www.smallarmssurvey.org

Back in 2000, U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) coined the term “Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM)”. Following the request for assistance from the Republic of Guyana, the DTRA led the investigation of an ammunition dump explosion in the country that killed 3 people and injured another 12[1]. Various guides existent for PSSM define what is self-evident: Just as with a bottle of milk in a store, ammunition has an expiry date and specific requirements for transport and storage. However, milk does not explode, is less attractive as a target for theft and does not share the reverberating effects once in wrong hands. Accordingly, a reliable ammunition safety management regime is an essential component of effective PSSM and can prevent both accidents and diversion.

There are 2-3 ammunition storage explosions recorded monthly around the world[2], and with ageing stockpiles the trend is that they are becoming more frequent. Lately, Bulgaria decided to ban the import and transportation of munitions from other EU member states for the purpose of decommissioning, following another explosion at a state military plant. It was the latest in the series of deadly explosions occurring in the recent years[3]. Meanwhile, Ukraine has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of shelf life expired ammunition. The country lacks adequate storage facilities, inventory controls as well as industrial scale disposal capacity. A substantial amount of Ukraine’s ammunition is at risk of being diverted during the current conflict. Prior to the conflict, 10 ammunition storage area explosions took place between 2003 and 2011[4].

2Police officers inspect artillery shells Friday after an explosion Thursday night at a weapons depot in Maputo, Mozambique. (Ferhat Momade / AP)
Police officers inspect artillery shells Friday after an explosion Thursday night at a weapons depot in Maputo, Mozambique. (Ferhat Momade / AP)

Outside Europe the situation is even grimmer: In 2002, in Lagos, Nigeria, a street market situated next to an army base caught fire, which spread to the barracks where the ammunition depot was situated[5]. The sequence of the explosions left 1’100 people dead. Similar explosion that occurred a year earlier led to demands of the ammunition storage to be removed from the centre of the city, but were largely ignored. In 2007, an ammunition depot exploded in the middle of Maputo the capital of Mozambique. Commenting on the cause, the government mentioned prevailing hot weather as the leading factor to the accident. Yet, much of the stored ammunition was poorly stored, old and obsolete. As a result, 93 died and 300 were injured, many by the falling items exploding on impact[6].

The view of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) is that the main concern within PSSM is ammunition safety as that is where the most deadly risk lies. Unregulated and illicit procurement, hoarding of potentially unsafe stocks, and diversion of ammunition and weapons from stockpiles are important and pressing challenges to be addressed. Military ammunition is the terrorist’s number one choice for a main charge in an improvised explosive device. Yet, at the risk of being contested, implementing all articles of the Arms Trade Treaty, hunting down rogue arms dealers and fighting corrupt officials and practices in the effort to stabilise countries are necessary parts of the battle; but without addressing the issue of ammunition safety management, they are not sufficient in solving the principal problems of ammunition storage explosions and diversion.

From a human security perspective we name seven major issues (but the list is not exhaustive) to deal with: unmanaged and dangerous stockpiles; positioning stockpiled ammunition in or near populated centres; unsafe shelf life expired and surplus ammunition being kept; inadequate storage infrastructure and poor storekeeping; absent lifecycle planning and reinforcement of controls over stocks; unaccountable leadership and unqualified personnel; and, in some cases, presence of abandoned and unexploded ordnance amongst serviceable stock. Each of these challenges is of great significance by itself, still poorly understood in many states. But they overlap in definition and in practice, and should be addressed together. Some of them can be remedied through minor investments into skills development and technical assets while some require a more complete overhaul of planning and systems. Planning and prioritisation of ammunition safety management is definitely a key to improving the current situation.

Ammunition dump post-explosion in Gerdec, Albania, March 2008. (Photo courtesy of Richard Kidd, Former Director of PM/WRA)
Ammunition dump post-explosion in Gerdec, Albania, March 2008. (Photo courtesy of Richard Kidd, Former Director of PM/WRA)

Starting with unmanaged and dangerous stockpiles and the poor practices allowing this to be the case, this challenge is less complicated than it might first seem. If a state has the ability to procure and use ammunition, it is also able to manage the goods safely throughout their lifecycle. It is important to realise that the management dimension can be handled and that there are means to do it well. One way to go about it is to break down complex processes into their components and learn from their inter-dependencies. To mitigate diversion from a stockpile thereof, one needs to ensure that the person responsible for the stock is accountable, in control and on top of the task. For that to be the case, a functioning hierarchy and reporting system are needed. For the reporting to be accurate, accounting and inventory management need to be put in place. To ensure that the numbers correspond with reality, a verification function should be put into action. For the verification work to be effective access to the storage areas needs to be controlled and restricted to designated personnel, with frequent inspections of storage and transit areas carried out, competent perimeter guard set, and a comprehensive stock surveillance system established. As a result with these components in place, stealing or selling from a stockpile will become very difficult and risky, and conversely verification of stock quantity, type and location are made quick and easy. This part of the PSSM is no different than running a commercial department store.

Many countries have put comprehensive measures in place to inspect stockpiles and put a stop to dangerous and careless practices[7]. Some had to learn it the hard way. One such case is Finland where nowadays large ammunition stockpiles have been reduced in size; explosive depots have been modernised and largely moved underground, resulting in a fairly safe and secure system, with the project end in sight in 2017. Thereafter, the work will continue by addressing remaining explosive hazards from World War II, destruction of ageing stockpiles, and procurement of new armament to replace the old. But unfortunately, the entire process was kick-started as a result of a series of accidental explosions[8] in 1960’s and 70’s that killed and injured a large number of ammunition depot and factory workers as well as nearby residents. Investigations revealed that these disasters could have been avoided. These facts urged the decision-makers to redefine priorities at the Ministries of Defence and Interior. National standards for ammunition management were developed, training was carried out, a staff screening and qualification regime effected, and good practices sought and adopted from other countries. As a result, since the 1970’s and until 2014 only two minor incidents have been recorded in explosive manufacturing sites, with no casualties or significant damage.

There is plenty of technical guidance available nowadays. International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (2012), UN Saferguard Web portal (UN ODA), OSCE’s Handbook of Best Practices on Conventional Ammunition (2007), NATO’s AASTPs[9] (2006) are examples of freely available international guidance on best practices. These best practice guidelines are particularly useful when the budget, the facilities and the competence are available. Professional advisory services and training can be sought to bridge the gap between the current state of affairs, and those minimum requirements in the available guidance on PSSM.

Tackling another major issue, potentially catastrophic consequences of an explosion in ammunition storage close to a population centre can be mitigated via a variety of solutions. The risk, in terms of likelihood and impact of death, injury and loss of infrastructure, can be reduced significantly by the relatively simple measure of moving storage facilities away from these populated areas. Whether a deadly risk is existent or not in the current location can be quickly verified by calculating the hazard radius of the stored explosive quantity, and comparing the resulting distance with the locations of people and vulnerable buildings in the surroundings, as well as its distance to other stacks of explosives. Additionally, the various ammunition stacks can be moved further away from each other, reduced in size where necessary and divided into different hazard classes to eliminate the possibility of a sympathetic detonation. Barricades and protective structures can be built between the stores, and between the storage area and its surroundings to protect the civil population. Stored missiles and rockets can be pointed in a safe direction, away from settlements and into barriers to prevent flight. Communicating the ammunition safety issues to nearby communities may backfire due to people’s reactions after realising they reside next to a time bomb; nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the state to inform the population of those risks present, and train communities to behave in a certain way in the event of fire, for instance not to crowd in order to view the spectacle. Preventative and responsive safety measures can be straightforward and quickly adopted, though some will require more resources and planning than others.

Picture taken near Herat, Afghanistan. Collection of ERW in post-conflict zones is imminent, in order to avoid unplanned explosions, diversion and illicit trade.
Picture taken near Herat, Afghanistan. Collection of ERW in post-conflict zones is imminent, in order to avoid unplanned explosions, diversion and illicit trade.

On the challenge of mixed, expired and surplus ammunition, it is worth killing a myth in the notion of unpredictability of ammunition. While it is true, that it is difficult to know what is going on inside an old artillery shell at first sight, there are ways to quickly verify the type of explosive filling and with some more effort and patience, to determine the level of deterioration in its chemical and mechanical components, including the condition of fuze(s). There is no magic in these processes, only science. By studying the history of ammunition explosions accidents can be predicted to happen when ammunition has exceeded its expiry date, and is not stored within the margins of requirements for temperature, humidity and packaging.

Ammunition is never completely safe. Explosives are combinations of chemicals and these react with each other. Depending on the level of exposure to exterior conditions, these chemical processes slow down or accelerate. Regardless of the design of conventional ammunition, the means of triggering and initiation are simple mechanical-chemical or electric-chemical systems. By neglecting the basic requirements for safekeeping, it is entirely probable, and this likelihood increases over time, that badly kept ammunition will accidentally explode one day, will fail to function as designed, will be stolen, or then be traded away. In addition, as ammunition gets too old and unstable it will prove more expensive to get rid of as increased care and safety measures have to be applied throughout the disposal operation.

Nevertheless, in most cases the cause of an explosion in a storage area is less remarkable and far less technical. Examples are sub-standard and old electrical installations, smoking and other spark-inducing activities, burning rubbish and packaging material near ammunition, fire that started outside and spread to the ammunition storage area, and so forth.

There are numerous instances of continued malpractice in storing ammunition and weapons, ammunition of incompatible compatibility groups, and serviceable and unserviceable ammunition together. Abandoned and unexploded ordnance, and quarrying explosives and accessories are mixed in with the operational stock. Some armed forces continue to stockpile ammunition that has no corresponding, or functioning weapon system to fire it with in the first place, and vice versa. These are not only bad practices, but also dangerous as we have witnessed time and again. What is needed are standard operating procedures, safe routines and discipline.

Street market fire in Lagos caused explosions in adjacent military base, leaving 1’100 dead, in 2007. (Source: BBC News)
Street market fire in Lagos caused explosions in adjacent military base, leaving 1’100 dead, in 2007. (Source: BBC News)

Good work is taking place in Africa in building local PSSM capacities by organisations such as DTRA, Multinational Small Arms and Ammunition Group, Mines Advisory Group, Danish Church Aid, HALO Trust, UN Mine Action Service, and many others. Despite the working context challenges manifested in administrative delays, unrealistic expectations for new infrastructure, corruption and lack of cooperation, projects do continue. These organisations are aware of what needs to be done to improve safety and reduce proliferation, and should be heard at the highest level. But every project has a beginning and an end. It is the sustainability of their capacity building interventions that is the stumbling factor. These agencies have to leave one day and, thus, it is the state that should commit to carry on implementing the safe policies, learnt procedures and routines, and execute the plans for new infrastructure and stockpile destruction. Understandably, much of the good work conducted by armed forces in this field, goes unnoticed due to reasons of national security and information protection.

To ensure safety and security of weapons and ammunition, and keeping them functioning as designed, the management approach has to be towards planning the lifecycles of stocks. Life cycle planning refers to appropriate budgeting for weapon systems and ammunition, their shipping, storage and transport, the procurement process, periodic and ad hoc inspections for quality and quantity, and importantly, a plan for their final disposal. In the process of acquiring a stockpile, its future is often left unplanned. Stockpile destruction is an integral part of ammunition safety management. Fewer obsolete and expired munitions in stock means less stock and less to worry about in terms of theft, acts of sabotage or terrorism, fire in the store, or accidents to one’s own troops attempting to fire dangerous ammunition.

As a conclusion, it is evident that PSSM is a task that mainly has to do with the proper organisation of location, storage, inventory reporting and procedures to be followed, when it comes to ammunition management. Prioritisation of ammunition safety management and establishment of a system that follows best practices is bound to save numerous lives and reduce injury due to accidental explosions and their consequences. Additionally, recycling and quality control is a cost-saving method in the long-term. More so than anything else, safe management of ammunition is about the people carrying it out, their knowledge, attitudes and skills. The GICHD has a complimentary toolset for ammunition safety management, which can be downloaded free of charge, guiding on the all the above-mentioned aspects.

This article is based on a presentation delivered at the Wilton Park meeting ’Tackling the Illicit Availability of Small Arms and Light Weapons and their Ammunition in Sahel region of Africa’, held in March 2015. The article was edited with the assistance of Christina Mangiridou, Conference Manager at IB Consultancy.

[1] Camp Groomes (90 km from the capital Georgetown), Guyana, 3 dead, 12 injured, 18 Dec 2000, http://www.jmu.edu/cisr/journal/14.2/profiles/schmitt/schmitt.shtml (accessed 21 Jun 2015)

[2] Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites, Small Arms Survey, update 04 Mar 2015

[3] http://sofiaglobe.com/2015/04/08/bulgaria-bans-munitions-imports-and-transportation/ (accessed 21 Jun 2015)

[4] http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/war/conflict-zones/150103/cold-war-stockpiles-the-us-pays-turn-ukraines-deadly-landmin (accessed 21 Jun 2015)

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/jan/29/chrismcgreal (accessed 21 Jun 2015)

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032300349.html (accessed on 21/6/2015)

[7] Argentina poses an example through the obligatory reporting of missing arms and ammunition that was enforced to the Armed Forces since 2007, see N.Marsh – G.Dube, “Preventing Diversion: The Importance of Stockpile Management”, PRIO Paper 2014, p. 5 http://file.prio.no/Publication_files/Prio/Marsh%20&%20Dube%20%282014%29%20Preventing%20Diversion%20-%20The%20Importance%20of%20Stockpile%20Management.%20PRIO%20Paper.pdf

[8] 1963 Oulu explosive depot (10 dead), 1965 Uusikylä ammunition depot (4 dead, 69 injured), 1966 Vihtavuori dynamite factory (4 dead), 1976 Lapua Ammo Factory (40 dead, 60 injured, 90% women),

[9] Allied Ammunition Storage and Transport Publication 1-2: Manual of NATO Safety Principles for the Storage of Military Ammunition and Explosives

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Mr. Paunila has worked in the GICHD as an Advisor for Ammunition Technical Operations since February 2013. He advises national authorities in issues of physical security and stockpile management, and development of sustainable State policies and practices to addressing explosive remnants of war. Prior to the GICHD, Mr. Paunila directed mine action, ammunition disposal and armed violence reduction programmes with Danish Demining Group, and before this, he operated in the field of ammunition stockpile management with Finnish Defence Forces. His longest field postings were in Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Mr. Paunila’s education is a combination of academic and practical disciplines with degrees in explosive weapon systems, automation engineering, and resilience.