Indian Army concerns over quality control, weekly ammunition-related accidents: Why Centre is pushing to corporatize OFB
The apprehension was not just about fatalities, injuries and damage to equipment due to defects but also on the overall preparedness for the Indian Army.
After an accident at Rajasthan's Mahajan field firing range on 2 February, 2019, due to defects in ammunition of L-70 air defence guns, a meeting was called by senior Indian Army officials.
Two officers from the manufacturer, the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), were invited to discuss the reasons for the accident.
Both failed to turn up for the meeting on 14 February, which triggered serious discussion within the defence establishment about lackadaisical approach of OFB in resolving the quality concerns of armed forces. The apprehension was not just about fatalities, injuries and damage to equipment due to defects but also on the overall preparedness for the Indian Army.
An assessment report with the defence ministry unraveling the poor quality control of OFB stated that since 2014, there has been an ammunition-related accident once a week. So, when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced corporatization of OFB to improve autonomy, accountability and efficiency, it was not surprising.
Though the government move is facing opposition from OFB workers union, which wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September and requested him to shelve the proposal, it nevertheless went ahead with the plan, which puts the OFB performance under the scanner.
Chinks in armour
According to the internal assessment report with the defence ministry reviewed by Firstpost, serious concerns related to OFB products have not been resolved despite periodic investigations and recommendations in the last two decades.
Besides accidents, there are issues of defects in ammunition, slow development, delay in production of ammunition required by Indian Army, poor packaging and high return for rectification.
The report further said there is an ammunition-related accident every 5.5 days on average. It also pointed to a large number of accidents involving 130mm guns firing full variable charge ammunition with range of 27.5 km.
The report said: “Non-availability of reliable full variable charge 130mm ammunition has serious operational ramification as maximum range of 130mm guns reduces from 27.5 km to 16.5 km. In spite of number of committees ordered, with the first one more than 20 years ago, issue of accidents with ammunition of 130mm guns remains unresolved.”
According to sources, in 2016, the Shardendu Committee recommended dynamically balancing 130mm shells.
“The exercise of dynamically balancing of 130mm ammunition was done on a trial basis,” sources said. “However, validation firing for dynamically balanced full variable charge and reduced variable charge ammunition, when conducted at Mahajan field firings range in October 2018, failed and resulted in accidents and damage to two guns. Currently, 5.7 lakh non-dynamically balanced full variable charge ammunition of 130mm is held with Indian Army.”
Sources further added that there is a shortage of replacement components which aren't fit to use. This affects operational readiness and also leads to shortage and safety issues.
The report further noted that a clear surge was noticed in accidents in light field guns and Indian field guns related to barrel burst, barrel bulge, and chipping of muzzle brake, due to faulty ammunition and eight accidents were reported in 2018.
“Director General, Artillery expressed his concern over a series of mishaps in 155mm Calibre guns involving Nashem design 155m extended range full bore ammunition being manufactured by Ordnance Factory, Nalanda,” the report observed.
A detailed questionnaire sent to Hari Mohan, chairman, Ordnance Factory Board, did not elicit any response.
C Srikumar, general secretary, All India Defence Employees Federation, said OFB alone cannot be blamed for quality control and delay in production because many a time ordnance factories receive the order at the eleventh hour which leads to various other complications with suppliers of raw materials.
“Past investigations into accidents also revealed problems with storage or mishandling of weapons,” Srikumar said. “But this aspect was never highlighted. Corporatization is not the answer to the problem. We came together to fight COVID-19 and manufactured PPE kits, mask, sanitisers, but the government took advantage of the crisis and announced this decision without considering our suggestions. We have written letters to prime minister and defence minister opposing this move. On Thursday, OFP employees sent 82,000 emails to the government requesting this decision be reversed. We are government employees and cannot be converted into private employees. All the labour unions are with us on this issue.”
OFB unable to meet demand
As per reports, the Indian Army is dependent on OFB for its ammunition requirements but it has failed to deliver certain category of critical ammunition. The Indian Army had to outsource detonators for hand grenades to private industry after OFB failed to deliver. Similarly, OFB was supposed to manufacture anti-tank mines with improved design but there has been serious lack of ownership on the part of OFB and the project has been delayed despite intervention by the defence ministry, as per reports.
There are 41 Ordnance Factories involved in manufacturing of wide variety of products such as tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery guns, small arms along with ammunition used by the Indian Armed Forces. The defence ministry note for Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) had observed that OFB has largely remained as a production centre with transfer of technology from foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and according to a rough estimate, nearly 75 to 80 percent of the production by OFB units is based on imported technology while the capacities in the factories remain underutilised.
Among the critical ammunition delayed by OFB, the internal assessment report observed that Indian Army is facing a severe shortage of Mine NMM 14. This is relatively simple to manufacture but the Chanda Ordnance Factory near Nagpur delayed the production despite push from the Master General Ordnance Branch.
“Four category of 40 mm under barrel grenade launcher ammunition has been under development by Ammunition Factory, Khadki, Pune since last 8 years. It needs to be expedited being the main ammunition of T-72 / T-90 Tanks. It is of serious concern that even after a series of defects, accidents in particular ammunition OFB and Directorate General Quality Assurance (DGQA) are unable to arrest the problem and user continues to suffer accidents and casualties during firing,” the internal assessment report observed.
Sources said poor quality control, archaic infrastructure coupled with lack of accountability of OFB is considered to be the major reasons for recurring accidents and defects in ammunition.
“Indian Army is solely dependent on OFB for ammunition and that's why it can get away with substandard products,” sources further added. “It's rare that production of ammunition is stopped due to deficiency in material, process or quality, which exhibits lack of accountability in OFB. The ordnance factories mission should be to compete with global leaders in ammunition industry but that will not happen unless serious reform measures are undertaken by the government. Accidents are causing loss of precious lives and have serious operational ramifications.”
It has been suggested in the assessment report that OFB must strive to provide ammunition quality which is on par with the best in the world and prevent cases of blackening, deterioration of primes, carts driving bands and other components.
“Same if not addressed, shall lead to accidents, defects, reduction of shelf life, early replacement or disposal, all of which is avoidable. There is an urgent need to ensure stringent quality assurance, control measures during entire process of manufacturing to restore user (army) confidence,” the report stated.
R Srinivasan, general secretary of Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation, however, said the OFB is entering the global market which shows quality is improving.
“Government says there is problem with efficiency, quality and accountability but OFB is receiving export orders which means the all-round improvement is visible on the ground. This decision goes against the hard work put in by OFB employees. Corporatization will lead to privatization which is not in the interest of national security,” Srinivasan said.
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