The Indian Army’s Ammunition Supply System Needs Revamp (Redux)

Defective ammunition supply to the Indian Army through Ordnance Factories under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has been a critical and complex issue which has remained unresolved and unaddressed for decades due to a myriad of reasons. Experts weigh in.

The Indian Army’s Ammunition Supply System Needs Revamp (Redux)

Background & Trigger

The Indian Army had recently complained to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) slippage in the supply and development of ammunition besides lack of quality adversely affecting operational effectiveness/readiness of over 1.3 million strong force. Defective ammunition supply to the Army through Ordnance Factories under the OFB has been a critical and complex issue which has remained unresolved and unaddressed for decades due to a plethora of reasons.

The subject is once again in the national news and deserves serious attention and debate by all stake holders of the Army especially the store/depot holders (basically Ordnance) and field users (mainly Artillery, Armour, Air Defence). The ammunition mainly relates to supply of Artillery guns (105mm & 130mm), Air Defence (L-70 40mm), Armour (T-72, T-90, Arjun MB) and other guns.

About seven-eight years ago, former Army Chief, General VK Singh had raised the issue of the Indian Army’s massive ammunition shortage. The issue thereafter has been repeatedly highlighted by both the Army and the Indian media; stressing about the continued lack of quality controls and checks with regards to the supply system that continues to be in vogue wherein faulty/defective ammunition including mines continue to be supplied to the Army resulting in avoidable accidents during storage at depots or during live firing, resulting in accidents and causing loss of lives of soldiers.

As reported by the Army the OFB with 41 Ordnance factories and annual turnover of 19,000 crore, was unable to supply ammunition worth 1,400 crore during 2009-14 and 7,500 crores during 2014-19.

Presently there is reported MoD/Secretary of Defence Production, moves of resolving/addressing the long pending complaints of Army by introduction of the private sector with quality controls and assurance. This includes domestic private players with tie up of foreign manufacturers for seven different types of ammunition.

While politicians and bureaucrats will continue to accord little importance to this subject the Army must continue to raise their voice through the print and electronic media about the continued shortage of ammunition in the Army both in terms of quality and quantity. They must no longer accept to fight with whatever they have!

Also Read: Debate: Army's Internal Report to MoD is a Clarion Call for OFB Corporatisation

Responses from Veterans

Brig IS Gakhal (Retd), ex-RR Sector Cdr & Comdt Sikh Regt Centre

The fault lies in the organisational structure of the MoD. There are no professional soldiers to staff the MoD. Instead, we have a Secretary who heads MoD straight after his tenure in Women and Child Welfare or even the Corporate Affairs Ministry. As Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw said the Defence Secretary may not know the differences between a mortar and a motor.

The same can be said about the Defence Minister. Nirmala Sitaraman for all her wisdom has little clue and has done the greatest damage to her ministries charge, opening up Cantonments to compromising security, to state of equipment and ammunition. All in sorry state. In Gen VK Singh the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had a professional. If they meant business, he should have been made the Defence Minister. But no! the perennial coup phobia prevents selecting horses for courses.

The 41 odd Ordnance factories are under OFB ruled by the Secy Defence production. There are no stake holders in the entire decision making set up. The Ordnance Factories have a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) and union culture, productivity and quality control are least of their concerns. Overstaffed, little accountability and firm orders from the services keep their pay cheques coming. There is no competition to help them improve.

Recommended Way Forward:

  • Reorganise the Ordnance Factories to bring stakeholders in their chain of command.
  • Inject competition by licensing Private players into ammunition production.
  • Downsize the ordnance factories to bare essential ones, remove redundancy.
  • This is as good a time as any for introducing a CDS system for defence services.
  • Down size MoD to its actual role of being an administrative link between the CDS and Various ministries.

But we know this is wishful thinking! We will continue to invest in deficiencies and fighting tomorrow's wars with yesterday’s weapon systems.

We are a nation that thrives on status quo!

Lt Col Jolly Chacko (Retd), ex-AAD

As being often reported by the media for past few years, the Ordnance factories have not been meeting the regular operational demands of ammunition of the Defence forces, especially of the Army. These shortcomings basically pertain to the quality of the arms held and its critical ammunition needs to meet even the ten days intense war wastage rates.

With a view to overcome the problem there is an urgent need to induct knowledgeable and experienced user representatives from the three services. Senior service officers with high degree of integrity and moral courage and enough residual service and sufficient expertise of CQA establishment must be posted or seconded to the OFB.

The country must have a Defence Minister who has served in the armed forces. Appointing political party representative without any expertise/experience is detrimental to the interests of the services and security of the nation.

The right person must be found for this onerous responsibility. Manohar Parrikar fulfilled this role better than any/most of his predecessors despite truncated tenure of 30 months. India needs somebody of his caliber.

Historical Facts - Some Food for Thought:

Initially weapons and ammunition were produced in the privately owned industries, but when the requirement increased as well as quality was emphasised the state-owned factories were tasked. State owned industries met the increased requirements of British India from 1716 till the end of World War II. Now after over 70 years in independent India we are saying that state owned industries cannot meet the requirements of Defence forces on both terms; quality and quantity.

During the 1971 Indo-Pak War the requirement was met to meet operational needs on both western and eastern fronts resulting in the creation of a new nation, Bangladesh. It feels that ‘subterfuge’ is employed by using the pliable defence services to raise false alarm so that such organisations are handed over to select corporate houses on a quid pro quo basis.

Cdr Ravindra Pathak (Retd), ESM Activist

Very few Government managed factories and laboratories have been able to deliver. The reasons are many but mainly labour issues and lax Human Resources (HR) policies. It would be better to outsource requirement of defence forces to civil manufacturers who would find it lucrative if numbers are adequate and export is permitted. One of the offsets for heavy investment could be leasing of OFB properties to the civil entities at low rentals.

Col VS Bhate (Retd), ex-AAD

Unless the vested interests in the Dept. of Defence Production and OFB is/are not removed one cannot hope to see any improvements. This is sad but true! Unless our Quality Control Officers are very strict and do not grant any deviations under any pressure from MoD and more so defence production or any kind of local allurements/pressures this will not improve. This will be true even if civilian sector is brought in.

Col NP Sharma (Retd), ex-Arty

  • Operational readiness should not be compromised at any cost.
  • Someone at the top must put his foot down like Angad.
  • Private manufacturers with suitable quality control should be identified.
  • Foreign players must be given entry to maintain/encourage healthy competition.
  • Accountability for the present fiasco must be fixed and the guilty must be identified and punished to prevent recurrence.

A Serving Colonel, Infantry

Nearly all PSUs in India, which were created initially in the Nehruvian era for self-sustenance are today loss making. A few like Amul have remained competitive and have been able to maintain their profitability versus modernisation. There is a very healthy organisational culture and people take pride in their company. 'Across the level professionalism' and 'organisational culture' ensure that Bureaucrats posted are not able to fritter away goals and targets.

The poor attention traditionally been paid to the defence sector accentuated with the incapacity of the uniformed hierarchy to take a stand has ensured the total demise of the Ordnance Factories. These institutions are now Beyond Economic Repair (BER). It is no longer advisable to sink funds into them or attempt their revival. It will simply not happen. The via media is disinvestment.

The auctioning away off the assets and the factories to private bidders will not only make available the capital to pension off the workers and staff but will also give credible capacity to the bidders to manufacture defence products. It will reduce the gestation period for involvement of private players to produce the required ammunition.

A lesson must also be learnt from the manner in which Britain disposed of her public factories in the 70s and 80s. She made the workers and staff shareholders. Thus, they became directly linked with the profitability of the factories. Workers were even ready to accept a cut in their pay cheques as it improved profitability.

Privatisation is inevitable. This is the only cure. As far as quality is concerned, it is easier for the government to penalise a private player for non-adherence of contract rather than fire an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. Also, it is far better (in the present scheme of things) to have the IAS work in the direction the Army needs - meaning - it is easier for the bureaucrat to make a private player accountable rather than be accountable himself.

A Need for Action

The May 2016 blaze at Central Ammunition Depot (CAD), Pulgaon (Maharashtra) due to defective anti-tank mines resulting in loss of 19 lives and massive damage to national property as reported by ‘Times News Network’, consequent to the favourable hearing by Punjab and Haryana High Court bench at Chandigarh, of petition of widow (serving officer, Major) who lost her officer husband (Lt Col) in the tragedy at CAD Pulgaon, known as the ‘Mecca of Ammunition’.

The news once again highlights the total apathy, negligence and indifference by two agencies, DDP and the OFB (under MoD) who have been issued notices by the High Court on the said petition against inaction in the matter pertaining to directions of then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar to fix responsibility.

As reported, despite the Army taking up the matter strongly, expeditious action was being delayed deliberately and dragged unendingly, leading to threat to safety and security of personnel and danger to the establishment. The petition has sought action on directions of then Defence Minister to fix culpability, accountability in the tragedy and for ensuring time bound removal of all defective ammunition to prevent any such catastrophe in the future.

(This debate was first published in Victory India compendium of books in 2019 and has been reproduced as part of  MVI's archival efforts. Views expressed are the respondents own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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