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Why are nearly 40,000 U.S. weapons sent to Ukraine unaccounted for?


The Pentagon's Office of Inspector General reports that nearly 40,000 weapons, more than $1 billion worth, that were sent to Kyiv to help Ukraine fight Russia are unaccounted for. The report also says there's no evidence that the weapons were mishandled or misused. So what exactly happened to them? We have retired Colonel Mark Cancian, who joins us via Skype to talk us through this. He's a senior adviser with the center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Colonel, 40,000 weapons sounds bad. Is it bad?

MARK CANCIAN: Well, this is a red flag in that the tracking system for weapons that works pretty well in peacetime has broken down in wartime. We know what we've given to the Ukrainians, and there's no reason to think that these weapons and munitions aren't being used in the war. But we're not able to track them. They aren't lost, but they're vulnerable to diversion. Now, there's no evidence that they've actually been diverted, but there's that vulnerability there. And with that vulnerability comes what I call the nightmare scenario. That is that one of these weapons, say, a Javelin anti-tank weapon, shows up in the Gaza Strip because it was diverted. And that would tremendously undermine support for aid to Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: You said that they're unaccounted for. They're not lost. You just can't track them. Isn't that the same thing?

CANCIAN: Well, no, because lost implies that no one knows where they are, that they're lying, you know, in a warehouse or in a ditch someplace. And we know the Ukrainians are using them. A lot of them are weapons that they have fired. And, you know, they're in active combat. So we believe that they're being used appropriately, and a lot of them, I say, being used up in combat. We just don't have the tracking on them that we would like and that is possible in peacetime.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it possible to track them at this point or are they just unaccounted for indefinitely?

CANCIAN: Well, some of them have been expended. In fact, probably most of them have been expended. A lot of them are things like anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons. I mean, the United States could do better. It's always going to be hard because, first, there's a war on. And, you know, the troops on the front line don't always fill out the paperwork appropriately the way we would like. And then we don't have very many personnel on the ground. So we don't have people at, like, warehouses to track them once they get into Ukraine. But there are probably some ways we could do better.

MARTÍNEZ: Would it be wise to maybe appoint one person, an inspector general, like we did in Afghanistan, to track these things in Ukraine?

CANCIAN: Well, we have tracking mechanisms. The problem is you have to have people physically on the ground. We have some of that with local contractors, but we clearly need to put more people on this, certainly in Poland, where the weapons are shipped out of, but maybe even more aggressively into Ukraine itself, maybe with more contractors, maybe even with some personnel on the ground, just to be sure that we have better tracking because the issue is so sensitive.

MARTÍNEZ: But how about just one person, one person in particular, that everyone knows that everyone can kind of think, OK, that person's the one that's in charge of this?

CANCIAN: Well, there's a system that exists. So I think the problem isn't that one person isn't in charge. I mean, there is one person. There's an office that's in charge of sending - coordinating the shipment of equipment to Ukraine. The problem is just the physical problem of tracking munitions and equipment in a war zone.

MARTÍNEZ: For the representatives in Congress, Colonel, who are opposed to sending more aid to Ukraine, how might this report be red meat for them?

CANCIAN: Well, the problem is you already see reports that these weapons were lost, implying that they were not being used appropriately, that maybe they were wasted. And I say that's not the case. You know, we know that the Ukrainians are in active combat, and we have no reason to think that they aren't using these weapons and munitions in that combat.

MARTÍNEZ: Retired Colonel Mark Cancian is a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He joined us via Skype. Colonel, thanks.

CANCIAN: Thanks for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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