- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

The State Department sent 17 million rounds of nearly half-century-old ammunition to Colombia to use in machine guns on Black Hawk helicopters as part of the drug war despite warnings the rounds were unsafe and could injure those who fired them.

The 50-caliber ammunition was manufactured in 1952 for the Korean War, but was forwarded earlier this year to Colombian National Police (CNP) for use in the GAU-19/A Gatling guns aboard more than two dozen Black Hawk helicopters given to that government as part of its drug-eradication program.

The ammunition, according to government records, was approved by the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement despite a written warning by the manufacturer of the Gatling guns, General Dynamic Armament Systems, that 50-caliber ammunition made prior to 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General Dynamics' technical manual, under the heading "WARNING," said the deterioration of the outdated ammunition could result in lower muzzle velocity and increase action time resulting in "hang fires" that could result in "possible injury to personnel as well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 an Aug. 20, 1952, date.

Its delivery came at a time the U.S. government is looking to provide up to $1.2 billion in economic and military aid to Colombia for the years 2000 to 2002. The Andean nation is the world's top supplier of cocaine and is fast gaining a large slice of the heroin market.

The aid package would assist the Colombian government to win back some of the more than 30 percent of the country held by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC. The regions under FARC control, mostly in southern Colombia, supply most of the cocaine and much of the heroin flowing into the United States.

The outdated ammunition was discovered by investigators for the House Government Reform Committee, who visited Colombia last month. Investigators questioned the reliability of the 48-year-old ammunition and, according to records, were told at an April 20 briefing it would not be dangerous if those who used it fired it at a slower rate about half its maximum rate of fire.

But Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and committee chairman, questioned those claims in a letter yesterday to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, saying General Dynamics told investigators that slowing the rate of fire "would not eliminate the problems associated with the outdated ammunition."

Mr. Burton said the firm had decided that ammunition manufactured before 1983 "should not be used, even for training purposes, for the same reasons it cannot be used during combat." He said the U.S. Army has forbidden the use of 50-caliber ammunition manufactured before 1983 for its GAU-19/A guns.

"My principal concerns are for the safety of our long-standing allies, the CNP, and the effective prosecution of the battle against Colombian narcoterrorists," Mr. Burton said. "The provision of grossly outdated ammunition seems to do little to further either objective.

"International drug trafficking from Colombia and the rest of the Andean region is one of the most serious national security threats we face as a nation," he said. "Any effort to eliminate this threat on the cheap is penny-wise and pound-foolish. We cannot expect the Colombian government to wage a winning battle against heavily armed narcoterrorists if we are going to supply them with unsafe and useless 50-year-old ammunition."

State Department spokesman Martha Duckett said the department had not yet seen the Burton letter and could not comment on the propriety of the ammunition until it had a chance to review the letter.

Officials at the Colombian Embassy in Washington did not return calls for comment.

The delivery of the ammunition was not, however, the first time that outdated or dilapidated material for the war on drugs had been sent to Colombia. Last year, Colombia rejected a U.S. donation of 18 Vietnam-era trucks because they were so broken-down it would have cost almost as much to fix them as to buy new ones.

Colombian officials waited for months for the trucks to transport troops into mountain jungles to eradicate drug plantations and processing labs. But when the 2.5-ton trucks arrived in October 1999, the officials found that the bodies were gnawed by rust, the batteries were corroded and the engine models were so old the Colombian army had stopped using them a decade ago.

The trucks, destined for use in steamy jungles, came with heaters and ignition systems made to withstand subzero temperatures.

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