In an article published in The Times of India, “Army raises alarm over rising accidents due to faulty ammunition” Rajat Pandit has highlighted a serious issue that is compromising war preparedness of the Armed Forces. His article has brought into public attention a serious lapse on the part of Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and Ministry of Defence (MoD) that is causing fatal accidents and collateral damage to the military. Faulty ammunition is not new and it has been happening since long; however, the accident rates have increased manifolds and that is a worrying trend.
In 2016, 19 Army soldiers perished in a blast that took place in the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD), Pulgaon. Cause? Defective mines stored in the Depot! This happened in spite of the Army having alerted the OFB repeatedly that these defective mines were a potential safety hazard. Despite this horrendous blast in the CAD Pulgaon, the MoD has not held any of the concerned officials culpable. These include –
- The officials in the ordnance factory that manufactured the defective ammunition
- Officials who cleared the defective ammunition
- Those in the OFB who, despite warnings, took no action to have the defective ammunition destroyed.
Ultimately, the widow of an officer killed in the blast had to approach the High Court seeking justice. Such an insensitive attitude on the part of MoD and OFB suggests that lives of soldiers do not matter to these organisations. Unfortunately, OFB has always attributed the accidents to the poor handling of the ammunition and poor maintenance of weapons rather than improving the system within. Does it not sound absurd?
Accountability for Faulty Ammunition Goes In Circles of Unacceptance
To ensure the safety and stability of ammunition in field conditions, the explosive content and quantity have to be perfect and measured by computerised system. The shape of the shell has to be precise and there is no scope for any deviation or else it could explode inside the gun. Ironically, quality control is becoming suspect due to lack of accountability of the OFB. High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL), a laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) located in Pune had brought out that the TNT used in the defective mines that caused explosion in Ammunition Depot Pulgaon, was not even military-grade and TNT was melting at much lower heat than the prescribed level. The Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) had stated that the defect in the mines had occurred due to change in the process of manufacture by the ordnance factory.
A Defect Rate of 10-12%
It is shocking that till a few years back, explosive and charges were filled by hand, on the basis of approximation instead of computerised based measurement system. A former artillery officer told the author that by visual inspection almost 10-12 per cent artillery rounds are segregated due to shape and faulty primer. Reliability on artillery gun ammunition is so low that every round is inspected before bringing it to the firing bay. Imagine the consequences of using artillery rounds in war, where the time to inspect is zero! The defects can result in the rounds bursting inside the gun. It is thus horrifying to imagine a defect rate of 10-12 per cent, causing massive damage to own troops.
Army has once again taken up the case of unprecedented accidents due to defective ammunition supplied by OFB of artillery guns, tanks, and even air defence guns. The Army, however, committed a cardinal mistake when it did not press charges of criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide not amounting to murder on OFB, for the accident that claimed 19 lives in Pulgaon, despite having received multiple warnings. The situation as it stands today is that the men are reluctant to use the ammunition produced by the OFB.
“Chalta Hai” Attitude Cannot Work in Case of Ammunition
The soldiers entrust their lives to the weapons and ammunition they handle to survive and win wars. Without trust, there is little on earth that can motivate men to fight till the last man last round. If soldiers get unreliable weapons and ammunition, they lose the war before it even starts. Military commanders are the only ones who can understand this. It is thus the responsibility of the leadership to red flag such issues. Why should young officers and men die for someone’s incompetence and dereliction of duty?
Even one accident must make MoD sit up and take note of the incident. In fact, MoD and OFB are accountable and responsible to ensure war preparedness of the soldiers. This attitude of “Chalta Hai” must come to an end.
Investigation & Accountability A Must
Investigation and fixing accountability is important to ensure that it does not happen again. There is no penalty on the OFB for accidents. Every year, ammunition worth hundreds of crores is declared ‘unfit for firing’. However, OFB is not made to refund the money for failure of the ammunition, and loss to the state exchequer remains unrecovered. This wastage is seriously hampering modernisation and making up of the hollowness.
Army is already short of ammunition. Defective ammunition rendered segregated dips the deficiency further to a critical level. Segregated ammunition in most cases is backloaded, some quantity is repaired and balance is either destroyed or recycled. There is no replenishment as far as segregated ammunition is concerned till final disposal order. In case of hostilities, perforce army has to dig inside war reserves. It has to make up first and second line of ammunition for the field formations. There is no accountability for expenditure on cartage and transportation of the unusable ammunition. These issues remain hidden and not brought out in public domain. As a result, one conveniently brushes it under the carpet.
What is the answer?
Army must take a stand and not succumb to the bureaucracy-OFB nexus. Unless the Army does so, it will continue to suffer the similar death and dismemberment of its soldiers. Is it not a criminal conspiracy to create doubt and unreliability in the minds of the soldiers? To cause disruption in training? It certainly has far-reaching consequences. Heads, both in MoD and OFB must roll. It is the responsibility of the MoD to provide reliable ammunition and weapon systems. Their job is not to sit on the judgement seat to see if the OFB is right or wrong. MoD must depute periodically the senior officials who oversee production and quality control for training firing. I can assure no accident will take place and people will do their job sincerely.
This frail excuse of handling and storage of ammunition needs to be debunked. Ammunition has to be robust to sustain handling in field and war-like situation. Army doesn’t need fragile ammunition which is susceptible to damage during any mode of transportation in a war zone. If ammunition is not fit for warlike conditions, then OFB must shut shop and start making Diwali crackers.
Ammunition Must Be Suitable for War-like Conditions
During war and training, ammunition must sustain even para drop from the air. Ammunition should be stable for storage in extreme conditions; be it in 50-degree hot weather under trampoline, or in bunkers covered with snow and wet conditions of North East. Therefore, the argument of OFB blaming accidents on poor handling or poor storage conditions, is absurd.
OFB management needs to come out in the field and see the ground conditions and the extreme climatic and terrain conditions in which ammunition will be stored and fired. Army does not fire guns in laboratory conditions; they fire in most hazardous conditions. Hence, they must make ammunition that is suitable in war conditions. More importantly, stop supplying ammunition that is unfit for use by soldiers in war conditions. Notwithstanding the above, the responsibility to protect the command and prevent unacceptable harm to men ultimately rests with the military commanders. Thus, for deaths due to poor quality ammunition, military leadership too must take the blame for it. They must accept their inability to force MoD and OFB to supply good and stable ammunition