A Special Forces soldier or an artillery or armour regiment serves no purpose if equipped with defective or dud ammunition. Much of the problem lies with the OFB.
Last week the armed forces, particularly the Army, were in the news because of two developments—one progressive and the other regressive. The progressive was the Ministry of Defence’s announcement of an Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) headed by a major general, which is but a baby step into the 21st century considering that this formation falls well short of the creation of a Special Operations Command as recommended by the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011.
Alongwith, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) also announced the creation of a Cyber Warfare Centre and a Space Warfare Centre to be headed by a Navy and Air Force officer, respectively. This again falls short of a Cyber Command and a Space Command as was also the original recommendation. These three new establishments will report to the Chief of the tri-service Integrated Defence Staff or CIDS, which serves as the secretariat for a yet-to-be-created Chief of Defence Force.
But the creation of the tri-service AFSOD comprising the Army’s para special forces, the Navy’s marine commandos or MARCOS and the Air Force’s Garud commandos can be effective only if they are suitably, adequately and effectively equipped. A Special Forces soldier or an artillery or armour regiment serves no purpose if equipped with defective or dud ammunition.
This brings us to the regressive development. Last week the Army reportedly also expressed alarm at the unacceptably high number of accidents owing to defective and poor quality ammunition being supplied by our Ordnance Factories (OF). A 15-page report prepared by the Army details the many accidents they have had with a range of artillery and tank ammunition comprising the 40 mm L-70 air defence guns, 105 mm light field guns, 130 MA1 medium guns and also the 125 mm ammunition for the Arjun, T-90 and T-72 tanks manufactured by the OFs.
This has resulted in the Army taking the extreme step of placing an altogether halt to testing and firing certain types of ammunition such as, for example, the 40 mm ammunition for the L-70 air defence guns. The latest among the several casualties suffered in recent times is an officer and four soldiers injured in an accident last February.
The Army ascribes the defects to a range of factors that include “poor metallurgy and packaging, manufacturing deficiencies, improper maintenance of weapon systems and improper handling of ammunition and weapons during firing”.
Five soldiers suffering serious injuries should be an incident enough to invite serious attention. But going by past experience, it is unlikely to cut ice with either the concerned OFs or the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), which oversees the functioning of the country’s 41 ordnance factories.
Consider the following. Three years ago the Army recorded its probably worst peace time mishap in the country’s post-Independence history when on 31 May 2016 the Army lost a Lieutenant Colonel, a Major and 17 more soldiers in a devastating explosion at the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) in Pulgaon, the country’s largest storage area for ordnance spread over 7,000 acres and located about 120 km from Nagpur. Many more soldiers were wounded, 17 of them seriously when about 20,000 defective anti-tank mines packed with about 134,000 kg of TNT caught fire and caused a massive explosion.
The anti-tank mines had been received at the depot six years earlier and were almost immediately classified as having a “serious manufacturing defect”. The Army was awaiting a decision for repair or demolition of these anti-tank mines since 2010 since many of the mines had been exuding TNT from their plastic bodies.
But notwithstanding the tragedy and the many lives lost, two years later, in July 2018, the Army found itself writing to the MoD expressing concern that the OFB has failed to fix responsibility and punish officials’ responsibility for the blast. It is unknown whether responsibility was ever fixed.
Then five months after the Army wrote this letter, another blast involving defective 23 mm Shilka anti-aircraft ammunition occurred in the very same CAD. This time six persons comprising a soldier, an OF employee and four labourers were killed, while between 10 and 18 persons were reportedly injured.
Indeed, defective ammunition supplied by the OFB has been a longstanding problem and at any given time the Army is in possession of between 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes of segregated ammunition. The impact is obvious: It has been causing deaths and injuries, an adverse impact on operational preparedness, a major monetary loss to the state, resulted in delays in replacement and occupying large amounts of storage space, while imposing a serious safety hazard. The inordinately long time it takes to investigate supply of defective ammunition and to take a decision adds to the problem.
The fact is that incidents and adverse observations regarding defective ammunition and the functioning of the OFs is well documented. The following few random examples should be demonstrative enough.
Fourteen years ago a report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2005 had observed that 18 of 47 items of ammunition, weapons and heavy vehicles had quality problems and that between 1999 and 2004 the Army has reported a total 3,210 defects in OFB supplied products. The CAG quoted the Army’s DGOS saying that unserviceable ammunition was deteriorating and posed a potential fire risk. This was subsequently proven in the 2016 and 2018 blasts at Pulgaon.
Then again, replying to a question in Parliament in 2007, the Minister of State (Defence Production) acknowledged deficiencies in the supply of ammunition for small arms, rifles, machine guns and tanks. A more scathing observation was made in a more recent CAG report tabled in Parliament in 2018, which examined the performance of OFs between 2008 and 2013. Observing that there was an inordinately high rate for rectification, the report states that 17.5% of ammunition was lying in either segregated, repairable or unserviceable condition, with ₹3,578 crore worth of ammunition alone lying in a segregated condition.
The situation is complicated by the fact that there is already a major shortage of ammunition since the OFB is unable to meet the Army’s demands. This is directly impacting the operational readiness of the Army. As of March 2013, there was a shortfall in 54% to 73% types of ammunition. Against a required War Wastage Reserve for 40 days, the availability of ammunition was for only 10% of all types of ammunition and for less than 10 days for 50% of total types of ammunition. The Minimum Acceptable Risk Level or MARL for 20 days set by the Army in 1999 could not be achieved even after 15 years.
All these and more observations have obviously not had much impact considering the repeat of negative incidents. The problem continues to fester and it seems unlikely to be rectified in the immediate future.
Much of the problem lies with the OFB, which oversees the functioning of the 41 OFs that are engaged in manufacturing nearly 1,000 principal items either by itself or in collaboration with the original export manufacturers. As in many departments of the government (and even in sections of the private sector), OFs face a major problem of quality manpower, talent, worth ethics and sound leadership. A report prepared by the 10-member Kelkar Committee in November 2015 recommended that all OFs be corporatised under a single corporation and led by a competitive management with greater autonomy to run its own affairs, while being held accountable for its performance.
Perhaps the next government could take a leaf from a lecture by N.N. Vohra, former Jammu and Kashmir Governor, who has held the key position of Defence Secretary and Secretary, Defence Production and Supplies, delivered at the United Services Institute in December 2013 that figures in his book Safeguarding India. “…The defence ministry must enforce strict measures to ensure that ordnance factories, Defence PSUs (public sector undertakings), DRDO establishments (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and other agencies concerned function efficiently to deliver supplies and services as per the envisaged time and cost schedules; prolonged delays cause serious difficulties for the armed forces and large economic losses, as the lack of certainty about supplies from indigenous sources compels expensive imports whenever any emergency arises.”
Dinesh Kumar is a Chandigarh based defence analyst.