When a fighter with the self-described Islamic State pulls the trigger in a gun battle with an American ally, there’s a chance he’ll unleash a bullet manufactured in suburban Kansas City for U.S. troops.
Experts say battlefield victories virtually assured that the jihadists would restock their arsenals with captured firepower made at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in northeast Independence.
After all, the factory is the largest maker of cartridges used by U.S. and NATO forces, Iraqi government troops and other Middle East factions armed for years by the West — most recently to defeat the Islamic State.
But what’s sent to friends doesn’t always stay with them alone.
“If a unit was overrun, then what they had usually ends up in the hands of the victor,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an international security expert at the Swedish National Defense University.
Some analysts say a region torn by sectarian and ethnic hostility grows only more dangerous as it becomes awash in the tools of war.
Critics of the Obama administration contend ammunition and other matériel — some 2,300 Humvees were lost to the Islamic State last year when Iraqi soldiers fled their positions in Mosul — would be less likely to switch hands if the U.S. made a smarter pursuit of Islamic State fighters.
On the ground, Conflict Armament Research works with Kurds and Iraqis fighting the Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria to chart weapon trafficking. When those troops score victories over the Islamist militants, the group photographs seized caches on the battlefield.
Most recently, it found ammunition made at Lake City — traceable by the headstamp on the base of every cartridge — taken from the Islamic State in the small farming town of al-Dour near Tikrit, Iraq, in April.
“We can trace the ammunition directly to the plant,” Jonah Leff, the director of operations for Conflict Armament Research, told The Star in an email.
That followed discoveries that began last August when investigators found Lake City rounds in the Sinjar Mountains, where Islamic State forces mounted a deadly siege of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority.
More ammunition from the Independence plant turned up later among caches recaptured from the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan, in northeast Syria, near Mosul and Irbil in Iraq and just northwest of Baghdad.
“(Islamic State) forces appear to have acquired a large part of their current arsenal from stocks seized from, or abandoned by, Iraqi defense and security forces,” Conflict Armament Research wrote in a report issued last fall before the most recent discoveries. “The U.S. gifted much of this material to Iraq.”
The organization notes that most of the ammunition carried by the Islamic State is not American-made. The rifle of choice for the militants is the Kalashnikov AK-47, a relatively cheap and durable weapon of Russian design favored by insurgents around the globe.
The Kalashnikov fires a larger, 7.62-mm, round than the 5.56-mm ammunition used in U.S. M-16 and M-4 rifles. Some NATO weapons use 7.62-mm ammunition made at Lake City, but those come in slightly longer cartridges than ones made for the Kalashnikov.
But the same victories that yielded American-gauge ammunition netted those more valuable American battle rifles. And those U.S.-style weapons have been trafficked in the region for years.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction criticized the accounting of weapons handed off from the U.S. to Iraqi soldiers in an October 2006 audit. Closely tracking serial numbers on those weapons, it said, could stem the flow to a black market or insurgents.
Yet only about 2 percent of the serial numbers of more than 500,000 U.S. weapons handed over to the Baghdad government were recorded. Those weapons ranged from pistols to rocket launchers.
The Lake City Plant includes 458 buildings sprawling across nearly 4,000 acres near Missouri 7 and Missouri 78. Remington Arms Co. opened the facility at the start of World War II. The plant shuttered in 1945 and cranked up operations to supply American forces in Korea in 1951.
Ever since, its production and employment have risen and fallen in step with the rhythms of war and peace. The most recent peak came during the American occupation of Iraq, at times employing 2,800 people and delivering 1.4 billion rounds in a year. Production now ranges from 500 million to 700 million rounds a year, made by about 1,500 employees.
Lake City is owned by the U.S. Army, which contracts with Orbital ATK to manage operations. The contractor can make commercial sales from the plant, but a spokesman said the company does not reveal numbers on those sales.
In 2010, the Swiss group Small Arms Survey called Lake City “the world’s largest producer of military ammunition with a quasi-monopoly on the U.S. and international ammunition market.”
American ammunition began to grow scarce during the early stages of the Iraq War, partly because of battlefield demand and partly because of new requirements that soldiers undergo live-fire training twice a year instead of once.
That prompted the Pentagon to look elsewhere for supplies, including the United Kingdom and Israel.
Yet of the M-16- and M-4-friendly ammunition found in the hands of Islamic State, most appeared to have been made at the Lake City plant from 2005 to 2008.
“The LC (Lake City) ammo represents a very small portion of all the ammo samples we have documented this far, but an important” — about 79 percent — “part of the 5.56 x 45 mm ammo sample in the region,” said Armament Conflict Research’s Leff. “The most probable hypothesis so far is that IS forces have captured LC ammo in Iraqi bases or during battles, but it is not possible for us to estimate the quantity they might have.”
That a fraction of the ammunition held by the Islamic State came from Missouri surprises few.
“If we supply weapons and equipment to the Iraqi army, and they’re dropping and running, it’s not surprising that the ISIS guys are picking it up and putting it to use,” said Dan Grazier, a retired Marine Corps officer who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a military analyst now at the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.
In some ways, the ammunition could prove of mixed value to the irregular outfits trying to establish a caliphate. The American rifles offer greater range and accuracy than Kalishnikovs. And the U.S. ammo has less stopping power, meaning it can be more likely to wound than kill instantly. That can be an advantage when an injured soldier ties up several comrades coming to his rescue.
But M-4s and M-16s can prove more finicky than an AK-47 and require more care — a potential problem for poorly trained fighters.
Still, ammunition supplies need constant replenishing. Undisciplined troops tend to fire with abandon, quickly depleting reserves. So restocking ammunition reserves could make the difference for the next firefight.
“Ammunition is everything. … If you’re an army, you want it in big batches,” said Edward J. Laurance, a consultant to the United Nations on small arms and an analyst for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Very often, we find the amount of violence a group is causing goes up and down with the amount of ammunition.”
Experts see the presence of Lake City-made ammo more reflective of the easy availability of matériel on the battlefield than as game-changing.
Most of the ammunition recovered came from Russia and China. Iran and various Persian Gulf regimes fed guns and bullets to the fighting, typically along sectarian lines along the Sunni/Shiite divides that define the region.
Gartenstein-Ross said all that war booty moving around Iraq and Syria underscores the difficulty of outside influence. For instance, could Washington have stemmed the rise of the Islamic State had it backed more moderate forces trying to topple Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad earlier? Might lending elite U.S. ground troops, and more Lake City ammo, to Iraq now mean the Islamists win fewer battles and take over fewer stacks of U.S. rounds?
Few see a substantial change in American policy before the end of the Obama administration. But James Carafano, a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, urges a stronger American presence in the fight against the Islamic State.
Even so, he concedes, the choices are tough. This month, Turkey let U.S. warplanes launch manned flights. But Turks and Kurds are often at violent odds with each other, even if they both see the Islamic State as an existential threat.
That, Carafano said, underscores the need for careful and difficult choices.
“If you’re giving a bullet to a Shiite militia and expect it to free a Sunni village, you might be making a mistake,” he said. “Who you give the bullets to really matters.”