A U.S. contractor bought faulty grenades and then tried to sell them to the United States in order to fulfill a contract to arm Syrians participating in the Pentagon’s train and equip program for Syrian rebels, according to a Buzzfeed news report on Thursday.
The report details the transactions of a tiny contracting company called Purple Shovel, LLC that is based out of an industrial mall in Sterling, Va. The company, after receiving two contracts from Special Operations Command that amounted to more than $50 million dollars, hired additional subcontractors to procure a range of small arms and light weapons. The arms would then be sent to Syrian rebels being trained by the United States to fight the self-declared Islamic State.
According to the report, Purple Shovel’s subcontractors had difficulty finding weapons and ammunition needed for the program because of high demand on the global market. The contract called for various weapons and their associated ammunition, including recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missile systems.
To fulfill a portion of the contract, Purple Shovel’s subcontractors turned to an unnamed Bulgarian company to purchase 12,640 PG-7VM high explosive anti-tank rockets, according to the report. The PG-7VM is the iconic teardrop-shaped grenade usually seen protruding from the end of rocket-propelled grenade launchers in conflict zones around the world.
According to the report, there were a number of issues with the rounds procured by Purple Shovel, namely that the purchased rockets had been produced in 1984. While bullets, if stored somewhat properly, can have long shelf lives, explosive ordnance is much more temperamental. Explosives and their various components can degrade quickly if exposed to moisture and are improperly packaged.
When reached for comment, the Pentagon confirmed that despite delivery issues there had been no pause in the train and equip program, according to the report.
“These programs are highly risky, incredibly low reward and incredibly expensive,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center who focuses on the arms trade, referring to the type of third party purchasing Purple Shovel had been doing at the bequest of the Pentagon.
While SOCOM refused shipment on a number of the grenades, a subcontractor employee, Francis Norwillo, was possibly killed testing them in Bulgaria, according to the Buzzfeed report and a local news release cited by Buzzfeed.
“This is a perpetual problem when countries want non-U.S. weapons and when other actors are involved, said Stohl. “You can get dubious quality weapons from potentially nefarious actors.”
Norwillo, 41, a Navy veteran and armorer, was working for the company Skybridge Tactical, one of Purple Shovel’s subcontractors, when he was killed in June, according to the report.
While in the report, the U.S. embassy confirms Norwillo was working on a SOCOM contract, SOCOM told Buzzfeed that without a report from the “host government” it is unable to say if the contract and his death were related.
When Purple Shovel was reached for response, the man who picked up the phone said “no comment” and hung up without identifying himself.
Aside from procurement issues and faulty ammunition, Purple Shovel used one of its subcontractors to purchase anti-tank guided missiles through Belarus, which SOCOM confirmed, according to Buzzfeed.
Purple Shovel solicited the 700 missiles from Belarus because of an apparent shortage of the missiles on the global market , according to the report. While Belarus has import restrictions put in place by the U.S. State Department and a long list of human rights abuses under its current leader –President Alexander Lukashenko—Purple Shovel still did business with it. It is unclear, however, if the company broke any laws in doing so.
The missiles purchased from Belarus are just one component of the 9M113 Konkurs. The Konkurs is a Soviet-designed system much like the American TOW. It uses a firing station to launch a missile, which is then guided by wire. According to the Buzzfeed report, Purple Shovel also purchased 36 of the launchers in addition to the missiles, though it is unclear if the launchers came from Belarus. With a range of up to two and a half miles, the weapon has seen extensive service in Syria against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s tanks and armored vehicles.
The Syria train and equip program for which these weapons were intended has come under increasing scrutiny in the past week, with some lawmakers calling it a complete failure.
On Monday, Army Gen. General Lloyd Austin, Central Command’s top general, told the Senate Armed Service Committee that only “four or five” fighters out of the initial 54 were currently fighting in Syria. The program, which began in earnest in May, has a yearly quota of 3,000 to 5,000 trained fighters.
Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for CENTCOM, told reporters Friday that four U.S.-trained Syrian fighters had re-entered the fight, bringing the total to nine. Ryder also added that one had been reported killed, while 18 remained unaccounted for. Eleven others, he said, had quit the program.