|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Buried in pages of national dailies was recent news about the army raising an alarm over rising accidents with indigenous faulty ammunition. The news report went on to say that Army has told the Ministry of Defence that the spike in ammunition related accidents is causing fatalities, injuries and damage to equipment at an alarming rate, which in turn is leading to the Army's loss in confidence in most types of ammunition being manufactured by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). The alarm was sounded by the Army with reference to the poor and defective quality of ammunition being supplied for tanks, artillery, air defence and other guns by the OFB.
The OFB with 41 factories is the main supplier of ammunition to the Army. OFB's immediate damage control was to insert in the media that nearly 80,000 vacancies were lying vacant in ordnance factories; as if this is kind of justification for producing substandard ammunition. But even with the current strength anyone visiting Ordnance Factories can easily find number of workers sitting idle. With additional recruitment, there will be under employed glut. Besides, OFB is the world's largest government-operated production organisation operating 41 ordnance factories, and only some are producing ammunition. So this can hardly be an excuse for faulty ammunition. Significantly, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) tabled in Parliament in July 2017 that the OFB failed to deliver ammunition on time leading to a mounting shortfall and performance of OFB in producing ammunition had dipped in the last four years - since 2013; in period 2009-2013 shortfall in production of different types of ammunition varied from 54 per cent to 73 per cent but in period 2013 to December 2016, the short supply dipped 64 per cent 95 per cent for different types of ammunition.
Shockingly, certain key ammunition weren't produced by OFB at all between 2013 and December 2016, and "despite continued slippages in supply of ammunition to Army, no mechanism was introduced by OFB to fix responsibilities. Not only did the OFB fail to produce critical ammunition for the Army, but produced poor quality ammunition. As many as 14 types of ammunition and 7 types of spares were returned between 2013-14 and 2016. CAG found ammunition worth nearly Rupees 17000 crores had to rejected by Army because of poor quality, which were "lying rejected at different depots due manufacturing defects." It may be recalled that in June 2016, 16 soldiers, including two officers, died when Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) at Pulgaon, Maharashtra went up in flames due to defective anti-tank mines stored in the depot. During the CAG audit, even 7.62 mm bullets found faulty amounted to Rupees 130 crore. CAG stressed urgent need for "improving existing controls of Quality Control and Quality Assurance", but that has been the story always.
The inability of OFB to meet ammunition requirements of the Army forced the government to open the private sector for manufacturing ammunition, but though a request for information was issued in 2016, it has yet to physically take off on ground. The current alarm has been raised by the Army because of regular incidents with 105mm guns, 130mm MA1 medium guns, 40mm L-70 air defence guns, as also guns of T-72, T-90 and 'Arjun' Tanks. There have been over 40 accidents of 125mm high explosive ammunition fired by tanks in the last five years. Army has been forced to stop firing of 40mm high explosive L-70 guns completely which adversely affects training and operational requirements in 'no war no peace' contingencies. The Army had to take this step after the last accident in February 2019 in which an officer and four soldiers were seriously injured during field firing.
The Army has also told the MoD that OFB large quantum of OFB ammunition has been found defective with their official shelf-life still not over due to poor quality control, and that blackening of ammunition of small arms and heavy caliber ammunition due to "poor metallurgy and packaging" is also a major problem. Faulty ammunition supplied by OFB had also caused the muzzle of M777 ultra-light howitzer, brought for trails by the US team, during firing at Pokhran Ranges in September 2017 before the Army commenced inducting these guns. OFB has deflected all blame by telling media an ammunition batch is issued after "100 per cent dimensional checking", defects or accidents occur due to "bulk exploitation" of ammunition by the Army, improper maintenance of weapon systems, improper handling of ammunition by Army during firing and poor storage. End of story and who can question the government-owned white elephant under benevolent protection of the MoD? A lot or batch of ammunition is generally fixed at factory level. Numbers in each lot may vary depending on type and size of ammunition. Only one round of the lot is tested. The Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA) does both, static and dynamic tests but lacks quality control because of which their role has reduced systematically over the years. Factory managers don't have internal 'quality assurance managers' to undertake tests. OFB is bothered little with no accountability being under and funded by MoD. Testing equipment is not a problem, laxity in quality control is real issue including tendency to ignore minor faults to avoid loses. Furthermore, input material is not tested by DGQA because of which quality of ammunition gets compromised. Therefore, there is a need to have a third party inspector to check. But MoD has killed this altogether now be authorising self-certification by all companies in civil and government, which includes OFB and ordnance factories. So Army can continue crying blue murder, attribute deaths due to defective ammunition to karma, and those disabled with injuries can look forward to being boarded out and taken to court by MoD to deny them disability pension. Need of the hour is privatisation of DRDO-OFB and third-party inspection of ammunition but that may remain a pipe dream for next few decades.