How do 50-ton tanks end up as toys for trigger-happy civilians? Inside the Pentagon’s flawed ‘demilitarization’ process
It's like Disney World for gun enthusiasts.
Those eager for war’s bangs, booms, and bullets no longer need to enlist. Civilians can instead enjoy a simulated version of combat by deploying to Battlefield Vegas, a bustling tourist attraction that features firepower comparable to a well-stocked armory.
The Las Vegas company offers a series of military-themed shooting and adventure packages with names like “The Four-Star General” and “The Seal Team Six Experience” that range in price from a couple of hundred bucks to nearly $4,000. Customers enjoy access to over 350 different types of weapons, including flamethrowers, a Howitzer, and the largest privately-owned battle tank in the United States. Those daring (and wealthy) enough to gain tank access can crush cars or fire live rounds from a belt-fed machine gun, a submachine gun, and a massive artillery cannon.
Battlefield Vegas is the brainchild of Ron Cheney, a military veteran and former chiropractor who has spun his love of military history into a major money-making operation. His company almost exclusively hires military veterans to build a team that seeks to balance safety and fun. Online reviews for Cheney’s attraction are generally positive. “Brilliant time!” one Brit exclaimed. “Really exhilarating stuff,” wrote another satisfied customer. An exception to the rave reviews came in 2019 when a disgruntled customer sued Cheney alleging that his 10-year-old daughter was “severely injured” after a weapon was accidentally discharged. (Court records show Cheney’s company settled with the family.)
Yet in this age of frequent gun violence and rising domestic extremism, the fact that a private citizen like Cheney can accrue so much military power strikes some as worrisome – and raises questions about how such weapons can legally land in civilian hands. Shortly after the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, a progressive artist collective called Indecline, defaced a Battlefield Vegas billboard that originally read “Shoot a .50 caliber only $29” to “Shoot a School Kid only $29.”
On the other end of the debate are gearheads, amateur military historians, and strident defenders of the Second Amendment. They view figures like Cheney as vital to preserving American history and securing the right to self-defense.
Cheney himself has vociferously defended the Second Amendment, and his gun ranges, by contending that America was born through self-defense. “It’s nothing to be afraid of, be ashamed about, nothing to be upset about,” he said in 2012. “It’s part of our history, part of our nation, of our country.” (Cheney did not respond to multiple written requests for comment.)
While some progressives have scoffed at his valorization of guns, others, including Adam Weinstein, a Navy vet and former Task & Purpose editor, have wondered whether these ranges could play a part in reducing gun violence. “Would taking certain firearms off the streets and putting them exclusively on specialty ranges satisfy Americans’ curiosity and gun-lust while saving us from carnage?” he wrote after partaking in Vegas’ gun tourism scene in 2020.
The story of how Cheney managed to amass so much Pentagon property illustrates longstanding issues inside a gray market that’s transferred tens of billions of dollars worth of surplus equipment into civilian hands, sometimes in questionable compliance with federal regulations.
Much of Cheney’s equipment appears to be used responsibly or simply put on display. But he was investigated for his tank, which, in its full functioning form, was alleged to be dangerous and illegal. Other pieces operated by similar companies have been misused, leading to serious injuries, and even death. (Just a few weeks ago, six civilians were killed when a Huey Helicopter operated by a crew of military aficionados crashed in West Virginia).
A 2006 Congressional report warned that the government’s highly flawed demilitarization and transfer practices raised the prospect of weapons falling into the hands of “possible enemies of the United States.” And yet despite consistent warnings by the press and government watchdogs, little has been done to address these potential pitfalls.
Demilitarization and the History of Surplus Sales
The first major effort to offload unneeded American military equipment occurred after World War II. Back then, the U.S. economy was large and robust after adapting to meet the enormous demands of military production. With the world suddenly at peace, the Pentagon found itself with $34 billion worth of surplus gear. It found eager customers in foreign armies, military museums, and civilian scrappers. Proceeds from sales went to repair old equipment and develop new technologies.
In subsequent decades, American defense spending has further exploded. The Department of Defense budget today hovers around $800 billion, a figure larger than the size of many other nations’ economies. Amid this constant churn of spending and production is the creation of a great deal of surplus equipment. As such, the military annually offloads thousands of surplus goods, from desk chairs to Humvees.
A series of dense federal codes explain exactly how all types of equipment are to be treated, sold, and, if necessary, demilitarized. And yet since the earliest days of this operation, the government has often bungled its responsibilities. The process of demilitarizing equipment and selling it off has been plagued by poor communication, confusing policies, and underfunding, leading to potentially dangerous items slipping through the cracks.
Possible solutions were first floated during a July 1972 Senate hearing. There, officials testified that automatic weapons, missiles, and other sensitive military technology were being improperly sold off to the public. This uproar led the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to create what’s today called the Office of Disposition Services in an effort to partially centralize and standardize the work. The office today transfers equipment between military branches and beyond – to police departments, foreign militaries, and the general public. (The disposition office is also responsible for the management and disposal of hazardous DoD material, a mission it badly botched during the Iraq War).
DLA holds lofty demilitarization powers, but it must still engage with an overwhelming number of other federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Justice, and State. Depending on the type of equipment, additional agencies can claim jurisdiction, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, The National Security Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, plus foreign governments through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and Joint Program Offices. These bodies hold unique responsibilities that can override or influence DLA mandates. In some cases, DLA isn’t even the prime agent in auctioning off military equipment, the General Services Administration is.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) first designated the military’s demilitarization programs as “high risk” in 1990. In the years since, investigative journalists and government watchdogs have periodically uncovered instances of government officials granting demilitarization waivers or inputting inaccurate “demil codes,” which determine the level of disassembly required before a piece of equipment can be transferred to non-military hands. (Cheney’s battle tank, for instance, holds a “D” code, mandating total destruction).
“The DoD does not sell combat vehicles or weapons to the public that have not been demilitarized,” said James L. Reed, a DoD Demilitarization Program Manager. “The only allowed provisions for the public to be in possession of a DoD-owned combat vehicle or weapon is by conditional loan to a 501(C)3 non-profit museum.”
While the museum route is the only path for civilians, it is plagued by lax enforcement and numerous loopholes. One government inquiry found that the Army’s Center of Military History has frequently waived demil regulations for equipment meant for museums, leading to a number of battle tanks sent out that, while unable to shoot, were still operable. (In the 1990s, this history office also gave 86 Army helicopters to contractors for free as part of a questionable exchange for “services”: “When the helicopters were exchanged for services, the agreement did not restrict the contractor’s use or reuse of the helicopters or parts. CMH did not ensure that flight-safety critical helicopter parts would receive the safety inspections required by Army and DoD regulations,” a 1996 report reads.)
Reed said a light demilitarization process is worked out between DoD and these museums to ensure “the equipment is safe for display. ” But he also acknowledged that “once the equipment is sold, DoD has no control if the buyer attempts to restore the item” to its military-grade state.
Reed also acknowledged that contractors may also offload military prototypes to museums. They’re expected to follow proper demil regulations but face virtually no oversight to ensure this happens. From there, a museum can sell this equipment to other parties without Pentagon approval.
In 1992, an old Air Force training jet was purchased on behalf of Osama bin Laden. A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Arizona Daily Star reported that the surplus jet had been transferred between numerous parties before Essam Al-Ridi, a pilot and associate of bin Laden, purchased it for $100,000 from a boneyard near Tucson. It’s unclear exactly how the plane was used, though Al-Ridi later testified that the jet was in pretty bad shape. He also said that he’d previously obtained military-grade night vision goggles on the American black market.
In 1996, 60 Minutes found that more than 170 military auctions contained equipment that, per regulations, was prohibited from being sold to the general public. In 1997, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) deemed these military surplus sales “thriving terrorist flea markets.” A year later, the Army finally promulgated regulations overseeing its demilitarization process.
And yet despite apparent reforms, sensitive equipment still leaked out. In 2006, both the GAO and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released reports pointing to continued problems and suggesting a series of solutions, including establishing a new agency to oversee the demilitarization process. Still, the CRS report presciently prophesized that further regulations over this process could create a “difficult battle with veterans groups that represent a strong base for political support.” (The VFW and American Legion often obtain equipment to display outside local posts). Still, the CRS report warned that taking no action would look bad if any equipment were to be “used offensively against the United States.”
Most recently, in 2014, the DoD Office of Inspector General found inaccurate demilitarization codes and uncovered items slated for total destruction instead found their way out into the civilian market. The report led the DoD to overhaul its demilitarization regulations. Millions of pieces of equipment were subsequently recoded, and Reed said the service now holds weekly conference calls to “discuss and solve any demil concerns.”
A former DLA official described the recoding effort to Task & Purpose as largely successful but acknowledged that it was complicated by severe underfunding. (The DLA Disposition Services today employs about 1,500 officials tasked with overseeing millions of pieces of equipment). The official also vented about the continued presence of other federal agencies with far less expertise on how to do the process right. (He singled out the GSA, in particular, contending “those people didn’t know the difference between their ass and a hole in the ground.”)
The GAO is currently in the middle of yet another analysis of demilitarization efforts. An official familiar with the investigation said myriad code and inventory issues remain: “Records between agencies don’t always match, there’s a lot of discrepancies, which begs the question: where is all this stuff ending up?”
Some of it has ended up at Battlefield Vegas and similar operations. Nestled just off the Las Vegas strip on Sammy Davis Jr. Boulevard, the company maintains a plethora of military hardware. Some pieces are stationary and featured in an on-site military museum, while other gear is actively used to simulate military experiences. (In addition to these tourist ventures, Cheney also owns a military surplus store called Henderson Defense Industries).
Perhaps aware of the looser demil restrictions governing military museums, Cheney established an “Air and Land Space Museum” with a few colleagues in 2017. (The entity’s state registration has since been revoked, while its non-profit status has lapsed). According to an exhaustive catalog of historic military equipment in America, much of Cheney’s gear came through other military museums – a point of sale that is far removed from the watchful eyes of regulators. His arsenal includes foreign equipment and demilitarized American weaponry, including an M548 Cargo Carrier, an M61 Vulcan Cannon capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute, and his infamous M60 tank.
One of his Chieftain tanks was used in the production of the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye. “These weapons have been held by GIs and shot down-range before they go to Iraq and before they went to Afghanistan,” Cheney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2021. “This is American history here.”
Government documents indicate that the M60 tank was first owned by the Marines, then transferred to the Navy, which offloaded it to the public in the spring of 1997. It appears to have been assigned various serial numbers over the years, a clear illustration of the arcane and confusing codes and overlapping agencies involved in this work. A demil certification document notes that the tank’s first civilian owner was an Oregon resident named Richard Barkley. Some years later, it was sold to Steve Preston, an amateur military gearhead who, along with a friend and fellow enthusiast, was killed in a 2015 freak accident after attempting to fire a tank round in a 1944 Buick “Hellcat.”
After Preston died, Cheney purchased his M60, according to posts on a private military message board. Cheney wrote that the tank didn’t run when he bought it from Preston’s estate, but bragged that he had a crew of machinists who could quickly rebuild and run it, even though the regulations insist the tank be marked for total destruction. One was “Dangerous” Bob Bigando, a pyrotechnic genius who lost half his pinky finger to a .50 Cal in 2004. “We have spent a lot of blood, sweat, tears and almost a friendship bringing [the tank] back to life,” Cheney later wrote in the online forum. “We still have to stencil the subdued USMC letters and her original name ‘Krazy Knuckles’ to make her look the way she did when released from Camp Pendleton.”
YouTube videos indicate that Bigando has offered ongoing maintenance and other assistance to Cheney’s tank. In 2018, Bigando and Battlefield Vegas also mounted a Vulcan Cannon to a Toyota Prius owned by the Black Rifle Coffee Company.
According to federal court records, Bigando, a former sheriff’s deputy, was charged by a grand jury in 2007 for illegally transporting explosives, including 8,000 pounds of M-3 artillery propellant to “unlicensed” buyers in New Mexico. He later pleaded to lesser charges involving possession of these materials. Part of his plea agreement included the temporary revocation of his right to own or possess any firearms. He was later found to have violated these conditions when agents found him in possession of various weapons, including an unlicensed, apparently demilitarized Howitzer that Bigando hoped to make “operational.” He said in an email that the Howitzer was eventually returned to him. “I do not have a criminal record that would prevent or restrict me from owning firearms,” he wrote, declining to comment further on his work because “nearly everything I do requires an [non-disclosure agreement].”
In December 2017, an anonymous tip involving Cheney came into the Phoenix office of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service. It alleged that his M60A1 battle tank and its 105mm main gun were fully operational and thus in apparent violation of various rules in the Defense Demilitarization Manual. Indeed, the tank’s “D” demil code mandates that the government “destroy” the “item and components to prevent restoration or repair to a usable condition.”
Agents from NCIS and DLA coordinated a subsequent investigation. According to documents, they contacted Cheney, who provided the original 1997 demilitarization certificate for the tank, which was processed through the Naval Weapons System Training Facility in Boardman, Oregon. Major sections of the investigative report, which was obtained by Task & Purpose, are redacted, including details on what information, exactly, Cheney offered agents that led them to close their inquiry in August 2019. “No criminal malice was discovered,” the investigative summary reads. No charges were filed.
Potential hints pop up in similar demil complaints reviewed by Task & Purpose. When confronted with equipment that’s in apparent violation of demil codes, the DoD has pointed to its ability to grant DEMIL waivers for a variety of reasons, including for museum display. Reed, the DoD official, did not offer comprehensive demil statistics, but said he’d personally granted 27 waivers in his two years on the job.
A senior Congressional aide told Task & Purpose that people in possession of heavy firepower are receiving less scrutiny because federal investigatory bodies are today spending much of their time focused on the small arms flooding the market. With some 45,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2020 alone, “we have to prioritize the major issues here,’” the aide said. “The demil laws are adequate, the rules are clear, the agencies are just not doing enough to enforce them.”
Jasper Craven is a freelance reporter covering the military and veterans’ issues. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The New Republic, New York magazine, and The New York Times.