- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

The State Department, which sent millions of rounds of 50-year-old ammunition to Colombia despite warnings it was unsafe for the new machine guns aboard anti-drug helicopters, has now located 50-year-old guns to use with the outdated ammo.

A pending decision to send to Colombia the Browning M-2 weapons single-barrel machine guns used by U.S. infantry troops in World War II and Korea has angered the House Committee on Government Reform. It wants hearings to investigate the State Department's "inability to prosecute an effective war on drugs in Colombia."

"The State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement has failed miserably in its effort to maintain an effective campaign against well-armed narco-terrorists in Colombia," said Committee Chairman Dan Burton in a letter yesterday to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

The Indiana Republican described the shipment of 17 million rounds of 1952 Korean War ammunition to Colombia and the planned use of the World War II machine guns as part of an "ongoing string of blunders which have hampered the effectiveness" of Colombia's anti-drug effort.

Mr. Burton told Mrs. Albright he intended to call witnesses to as-yet unscheduled hearings, and was hopeful "they will be willing to testify without the issuance of a subpoena."

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, described the use of outdated ammunition and weapons as "bad policy."

"Sending bad weapons to fire bad ammunition isn't the way to fight a war on drugs where our vital national interests are at stake, as in the case of Colombia today," said Mr. Gilman.

The Browning M-2 machine guns were offered to Colombian National Police (CNP) this month after the State Department discovered that the outdated .50-caliber ammunition could be used in them, House investigators said.

But the investigators questioned the reliability of the weapons, saying they can fire only 500 rounds per minute, compared with 2,000 rounds by the newer multibarrel GAU-19/A Gatling guns aboard Black Hawk helicopters now assigned to Colombia's drug eradication program. In addition, the older guns were described as less accurate.

Also, they said that the barrel of the Browning M-2 will melt during prolonged periods of fire, and that the weapon frequently jams, rendering it useless.

The .50-caliber ammunition was forwarded earlier this year to the CNP for use in the GAU-19/A Gatling guns. According to government records, the ammunition was approved by the State Department despite a written warning by the manufacturer of the guns, General Dynamics Armament Systems, that .50-caliber ammunition made before 1983 "is suspect and should not be used in the GAU-19/A machine gun."

General Dynamics' technical manual, under the heading "WARNING," said the deterioration of the outdated ammunition could result in lower muzzle velocity and increase action time resulting in "hang fires" that could cause "possible injury to personnel as well as affecting performance and reliability."

The manual said only .50-caliber ammunition made after 1983 should be used "in order to maintain gun performance and reliability." The ammunition was manufactured by Twin Cities Arsenal and sent by the government to Colombia in boxes bearing a date of Aug. 20, 1952.

House investigators challenged the reliability of the ammunition last month and, according to records, were told at an April 20 briefing it would not be dangerous if fired at a slower rate about half the weapon's maximum rate of fire.

Colombia's military chief, Gen. Fernando Tapias, has downplayed reports the ammunition he received was old and potentially dangerous, saying no one had been injured so far during its use.

"We haven't had any incidents, any problems," Gen. Tapias told reporters last week in Colombia. "The ammunition we have received is perfectly usable."

The general conceded, however, his troops must fire the ammunition at a slower rate than possible with newer ammunition because of the potential for a mishap, but declared it still met his requirements.

Mr. Burton also told Mrs. Albright the CNP faced an ammunition shortage, having less than 2,000 rounds of "usable and safe .50-caliber ammunition."

He said the Colombian police would have to resort to rationing, creating "potentially life-threatening and dangerous situations for CNP officers and Black Hawk helicopter crews."

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