Is the Department of Homeland Security Hoarding Ammo?

by Joseph Trevithick, a freelance writer and researcher. He is also a contributing writer at War is Boring and a Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on February 12th, that showed ammunition purchases by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have actually declined since 2009. Congressman demanded the investigation after reports last February that DHS was buying over a billion rounds of small arms ammo.

Armed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents with the Border Patrol Tactical Unit conduct a training exercise.

Armed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents with the Border Patrol Tactical Unit conduct a training exercise.

The reports were followed almost immediately by conspiracy theories that DHS was stockpiling ammunition to respond to domestic disturbances, possibly after a declaration of martial law. They persist, and they continue to be referenced, largely in the conservative blogosphere, including on the very day GAO’s report was released.

These theories were widely dismissed and debunked almost immediately. The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action had even posted a note challenging these theories in August 2012, before the stories in Spring 2013 made the matter mainstream national news in the U.S.

Graph from GAO's recent report on DHS ammunition purchases showing total rounds purchased per fiscal year since 2008.

Graph from GAO’s recent report on DHS ammunition purchases showing total rounds purchased per fiscal year since 2008.

Politicians on the other hand were quick to suggest it was a clear example of government waste. Representative Darrell Issa, who was then and is now chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, speculated at the time that if the rounds were not being hoarded then they were being shot off “indiscriminately”. Representative Jason Chaffetz said that the purchases by DHS meant they were buying 1,000 more rounds per person than the U.S. Army.

The GAO report, however, found the vast majority of these purchases were for training purposes and to keep its personnel qualified to use their guns. DHS told GAO it has around 70,000 personnel who carry firearms on a regular basis, including border patrol agents, air marshals, and members of the secret service.

Chart from GAO's recent report on DHS ammunition purchases showing the average number of rounds purchased per agent per year since 2008 for various agencies.

Chart from GAO’s recent report on DHS ammunition purchases showing the average number of rounds purchased per agent per year since 2008 for various agencies.

According to GAO, DHS buys a little over 1,000 rounds per armed individual per year. However, this raw average does not take into account that some of the ammo is also used for training other law enforcement agents, including those from other countries. Every year DHS trains an average of 60,000 outside law enforcement professionals according to the report.

None of this is particularly surprising. It is well known that U.S. military shoots a lot of ammunition in training. The Department of Defense had a requirement for almost 780 million rounds of ammunition in fiscal year 2001. This requirement was established before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a significant portion would have been used for training purposes.

After 9/11, the U.S. military couldn’t keep up with the demand. GAO released a report in 2005 that found the U.S. government was purchasing ammunition from foreign countries – including Israel – to keep up with the military’s requirements. In the same year, reports circulated estimating that U.S. troops were shooting 250,000 bullets per insurgent killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By comparison DHS has purchased less than 150 million rounds in each fiscal year since 2008. In fiscal year 2013 it purchased less than 90 million rounds. It also has a reserve of just over 150 rounds in storage. GAO found that budget cuts had been a factor in the reduced purchases.

Even if DHS had purchased the reported 1.6 billion rounds, this contract was to have spanned four or five years. This reported total was also the maximum amount that could possibly be purchased, including contract options that were not mandatory. Still, at most this would have meant buying 400 million rounds per year.

Graph from GAO's 2005 report on DoD ammunition requirements, showing the increase in annual ammunition purchases between fiscal years 2000 and 2005.

Graph from GAO’s 2005 report on DoD ammunition requirements, showing the increase in annual ammunition purchases between fiscal years 2000 and 2005.

The U.S. military, which has also been buying less because of shrinking budgets, is still taking delivery of over a billion rounds of small arms ammunition — every year. In the 2013 fiscal year, 1.4 billion rounds were delivered in total to all the services. This has been the case every year since 2003.

According to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, U.S. military has around 2.3 million personnel in total, meaning that it purchases around 600 rounds per person per year. While this might seem significantly lower than the numbers for DHS personnel, it is less than 1,000 rounds more per person that some had suggested. This raw statistic also doesn’t take into account that the U.S. military employs hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of whom are not armed.

Given all of this, it remains highly unlikely that the DHS is stockpiling the vast majority of the ammunition it purchases, for any reason. It also does not appear to be buying an excessively large amount of ammunition given its requirements.

This entry was posted in English, Joseph Trevithick, Security Policy.

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