The Twenty-first Century’s Rifle

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, early 2006

The fourteen Marines, ready to dash, waited for the signal. It was a cold February morning on a firing range just inland from North Carolina’s coast. The Marines, members of Second Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, were preparing for a deployment in the Anbar province of Iraq, and on this day they had set aside their M-4s and M-16s. In front of them, a short jog away, were fourteen Kalashnikov assault rifles, disassembled, unloaded, resting on the ground. At the signal, the Marines were to sprint to the rifles, reassemble them, perform a function check, load a magazine, and fire into a man-shaped target, aiming for the face and chest. Their rifles were a mix of Kalashnikov variants. They came from Romania, Russia, China, and North Korea. One was an original AK-47 from Izhevsk, assembled from solid machined steel, date-stamped 1954. It was fifty-two years old—almost three times the age of some of the men about to fire it.

The Corps had a nickname for this test: Just In Case. In the tour ahead for these Marines, their officers wanted to be sure that they could pick up a Kalashnikov, in any condition, whether from an allied Iraqi soldier or from an insurgent in a close-range fight, and use the weapon immediately and well. The signal was given. The Marines were sprinting. Thirty seconds or so later, the first of them were firing. Holes began to appear in their targets’ heads.

After almost six decades, the long travels of the Kalashnikov assault rifle had achieved the inevitable state: full saturation. Decades earlier the first AK-47s had left Soviet hands, and in the years since they had become the hand weapon of choice for strongmen, criminals, terrorists, and messianic guerrilla leaders. In time the Kalashnikov had also become a preferred arm for those who fought against the Soviet Union or Russia, and those who organized genocide. And now it was institutionalized in the training of American infantrymen. It could not, with all prudence, be any other way. In the battles ahead, every one of these Marines would encounter Kalashnikovs in the hands of allies and enemies alike. To see Marines prepare themselves around these simple facts, training with the signature socialist arm on one of the most prominent American military bases, was to grasp the extent of Kalashnikov saturation in modern war.

What does saturation mean? It would be naïve to think that war would stop without these weapons. It wouldn’t. It would be just as naïve to think that many of the consequences of war as it has been waged in recent decades might not be lessened if these rifles were in fewer hands, and not so available for future conflicts. For how long will battlefields be so? The answer is straightforward—as long as the rifles exist in the outsized numbers the Cold War left behind.

Much attention is paid to accountability, security, and destruction of potential materials for weapons of mass destruction. With lesser urgency and smaller budgets, efforts to secure and destroy antipersonnel land mines have become widely accepted. In the past decade or so, similar attention has been given to efforts to eliminate stocks of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons, whose existence threatens the security of air transportation. The notion of regulating military firearms and destroying excess stockpiles enjoys much less support and faces considerable opposition, no matter that illicit uses of assault rifles have killed and wounded far more people than have all of these other weapons combined.

There are many reasons for this. Part of it is that surplus small arms are regarded as foreign-policy tools to be kept in reserve. Part of it is that to many government officials, honest and corrupt alike, surplus small arms are commodities, items to be converted to cash. Part of it is the manner in which priorities are set. Infantry arms that are loose in the field are exceedingly difficult to account for or collect. Surplus arms, locked up in armories, do not seem to cry for attention. Domestic and international politics play a role, too. The governments most responsible for the widespread distribution of military assault rifles—Russia, China, and the United States—have, for different reasons, shown little to no interest in destroying their excess weapons or those of other governments, even when they are not needed by standing military forces, and even when they endanger their own troops.

The United States has underwritten destruction programs. These have been small in ambition and scale, low in priority and funding, and undermined by official incoherence. Moreover, domestic politics in the United States have hindered any American government from trying to undo assault-rifle proliferation, at least as more than a backwater project. The climate of mutual distrust—between those who would seek to regulate and destroy more military assault rifles and those who claim that any such steps risk infringing the right of American citizens to bear arms—is of such an order that those who direct American foreign policy often steer clear of the issue. There is also a psychological hurdle. The near ubiquity of military assault rifles in conflict zones can send the subliminal signal that nothing can be done, except perhaps to arm more people against those who already have the guns. This is a typical course. Where armed groups threaten a perceived American interest, a common solution is to send in more guns to counter them. In this way, the United States military, since 2001, became one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The processes of arms reduction are not completely idled. Some aspects of nonproliferation have broad international support, and certain procedural and legislative elements of trafficking control are here to stay. But the efforts are patchwork and are undermined by inattentive and uninterested governments, and by governments that actively flout the rules. Local successes have occurred. More successes remain possible. Diligent researchers and nongovernment groups, along with individual officers, can stop bad practices here and there. But there is little momentum and many loopholes, and there is little reason to think that on the grand scale much will be done to keep the flow of illegal infantry arms in check. The case of Leonid Minin, the Ukrainian-Israeli arms dealer arrested near Milan, illustrated the state of affairs. Caught with documents describing the illegal shipment of nearly fourteen thousand Kalashnikovs and 9 million rounds of ammunition, Minin was released from custody after Italian courts ruled that Italy had no jurisdiction over his black-market brokering activities elsewhere. He walked. Had he been convicted and remained in jail, the trade would have continued. Where assault rifles are wanted, recent history shows, they appear. They move across borders like any other contraband, like heroin or hashish, like illegal immigrants, almost like rain. They are liquid. Demand ensures supply.

The comparison to illicit drugs has its limits. Like narcotics, assault rifles are difficult to find, secure, and remove once they have been distributed within a population. Unlike narcotics, they are not consumable. They remain in their users’ possession, sometimes for decades. From 2001 through 2009, it was possible to find Kalashnikov assault rifles in Afghanistan bearing manufacturing stamps from as far back as 1953.2 These were some of the very first AK-47s made. They had been forged, machined, and assembled nearly six decades before in Izhevsk. If they had been accompanied by log books revealing the names of those who had carried them, each would likely tell of years in the hands of Soviet conscripts, then of a period of reissue to the Soviet Union’s Afghan forces. They survived from there, in militias and caches, until they resurfaced in the hands of the current generation of Afghan police officers and soldiers, the proxies of the United States, alongside Kalashnikovs that originated in arms plants throughout the former communist bloc—Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Russia, China, and elsewhere. The wooden stocks of these most aged AK-47s showed dents and dings. Otherwise most of these rifles appeared to be in excellent order, ready to fire for decades more.

Of all the methods to limit illegal trafficking in military arms, only one way is sure: destruction. Destruction can happen any number of ways. The most straightforward and effective method is to destroy excess rifles in government stockpiles, or those that are collected in conflict zones. Programs along these lines have faced obstacles of all sorts, ranging from practical to ideological. The urge to redistribute the arms often outweighs suggestions to destroy them. In this way, efforts to disarm Iraq and Afghanistan failed. Few arms were collected, and commanders who did obtain working rifles often reissued them to people considered, at least at the moment, supportive of the American military’s mission. In stockpiles, other pressures prevented destruction, and many of the nations that have the largest stocks of weapons—Ukraine, for example—have participated in destruction programs only on a small scale. No sustained will has emerged to cut up the guns, in part because guns and ammunition can still be converted to money. The United States sent mixed messages and created uncomfortable situations in the Eastern bloc. During the past decade, one arm of the United States government, the State Department, was encouraging ministries to destroy excess weapons. Another, the Department of Defense, was shopping for the same items in the same countries and often purchasing through some of the same black-market middlemen who have been accused of smuggling.

Is there an end? Yes. But the end of the Kalashnikov’s role as a primary tool for killing will not result, in all likelihood, from any disarmament program or policies. The final factor will be time. Kalashnikovs are sturdy, but not indestructible. They can and do break—sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car, sometimes when struck by bullets or shrapnel, occasionally when warped by fire. If left exposed and unattended long enough, they can succumb to pitting, corrosion, and rust. With the passing of many years, the combined tally of these forces will bring an end to these weapons. This will not be a short time. It will not even be decades. But in another half-century, or century, the rifles will have broken, one by one, and the chance exists that they will no longer be a significant factor in war, terror, atrocity, and crime, and they will stop being a barometer of the insecurity gripping many regions of the world. Until that time, they will remain in view and in use. Mikhail Kalashnikov was right. The AK-47 is one of the great legacies of the Soviet period. Its descendants will outlast the Soviet Union for decades more, products intended to strengthen nations that have made many nations weaker and put more people at risk.

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