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. The blast was caused by 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, the officials who cleared the defective ammunition as well as those officials in the OFB who, despite warnings, took no action to have the defective ammunition destroyed. Ultimately, the widow of an officer who was killed in the blast had to approach the High Court to seek justice. Such an insensitive attitude on the part of MoD and OFB suggests that lives of soldiers does 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?
To ensure the safety and stability of ammunition in field conditions, the explosive content and quantity has 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.
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 to 12 percent artillery rounds are segregated due to shape and faulty primer. The reliability on ammunition of artillery guns is so low that every round is inspected by officers and gunners before bringing it to the firing bay. Imagine what will happen if artillery rounds are to be used in war, where the time to inspect is zero and where every round brought to gun position is supposed to be fit for firing. It is horrifying to imagine a defect rate of 10 to 12 percent, which can result in the rounds bursting inside the gun, 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. No matter what OFB, MoD or senior military hierarchy may say, at grass root level, every time OFB ammunition is fired during training, an officer is always present with the troops, to provide them moral support and to show that he too is willing to risk his life along with the men.
The soldiers entrust their lives to the weapons and ammunition they handle to survive and win wars. If that trust is broken, there is little on earth that can motivate men to fight till the last man last round. It needs to be understood that if soldiers are handed over unreliable weapons and ammunition, a war can well be lost even before the first bullet is fired. This can only be understood by military commanders and it is the responsibility of the leadership to red flag such issues and not allow young officers and men to be killed 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. Every life lost in accident must be investigated and accountability fixed so that it does not occur again.
There is no penalty on the OFB for accidents. Every year, ammunition worth hundreds of crores is segregated and rendered unfit for firing. The most unfortunate part is that OFB is not made to refund the money for failure of the ammunition, and loss to the state exchequer remains unrecovered. This wastage at a time when defence budget is getting cut is seriously hampering modernisation and making up of the hollowness. Army is already short of ammunition and defective ammunition rendered segregated dips the deficiency further to a critical level. Segregated ammunition in most cases is back loaded, 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 is received. In case of hostilities, perforce army has to dig inside war reserves to make up first and second line of ammunition that is supposed to be with the field formations at all times. There is no accountability as far as expenditure on cartage and transportation of the ammunition on being rendered unusable and back loaded to OFB. These issues remain hidden and not brought out in public domain, as a result it is conveniently brushed 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 death and dismemberment of its soldiers due to faulty and unreliable ammunition produced by our ordnance factories under the aegis of the OFB. Is it not a criminal conspiracy to create doubt and unreliability in the minds of the soldiers and cause disruption in training? It certainly has far reaching consequences and unless it is looked at as a serious disservice to nation and to the soldiers it will not stop. 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 bureaucrats and OFB officers who oversee production and quality control of the ammunition to be present during 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 is supposed to be robust that could sustain handling in field and war like situation. If it is fragile and susceptible to damage during transportation by air, train, vehicles, ships and mules in a war zone, then I don’t think Army needs such fragile ammunition. If ammunition is not fit for rough handling in warlike conditions in that case, OFB must shut their shop and start making Diwali crackers. During war and training, ammunition should be robust and rugged because it must sustain even para drop from the air. Ammunition should be stable even for storage in desert in 50 degree hot weather under trampoline, in bunkers covered with snow and wet conditions of the North East. Therefore, it will be absurd to buy the ridiculous argument of OFB that the accident can take place due to poor handling or poor storage conditions. 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, either they make ammunition that is suitable in war conditions or 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, if men are killed in accidents due to poor quality ammunition, military leadership too must take the blame for their inability to force MoD and OFB to supply good and stable ammunition that is robust for transportation, storage and firing.
Brig Narender Kumar, an Infantry Officer, commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in J&K and Assam Rifle Sector in Manipur. He is currently Distinguished Fellow at United Services Institution of India, New Delhi.