(This was originally posted in The Print by Snehesh Alex Philip and Ananya Bhardwaj)
New Delhi: Ammunition manufactured by the state-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has again come under the spotlight with two accidents resulting in two fatalities over the past two weeks. Both incidents involved the dependable 105mm field guns of the Army and the BSF.
The first incident took place during a live firing training in the Akhnoor sector of Jammu on 23 February. It led to the death of Gunner Sayan Ghosh of the artillery regiment and left two others injured.
Describing the accident, a defence spokesperson said the barrel of a 105mm gun suddenly burst into pieces and the flying splinters hit the three soldiers.
The second incident occurred at the Pokhran firing range in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, Tuesday. BSF constable Satish Kumar died in the accident, and three others were injured. While the BSF has not issued a statement in this regard, sources in the force said the accident was caused by a “premature blast” in the muzzle of a 105mm field gun.
In both cases, the respective forces have ordered a court of inquiry. However, BSF sources told ThePrint that faulty ammunition is the prime suspect in the Jaisalmer incident.
“The projectile burst just as it exited the muzzle, leading to the death of one constable. Two others were injured. An investigation into the incident will be conducted. It is a case of premature muzzle blast,” a BSF source said.
The ammunition for the guns is manufactured by the OFB, which has courted scrutiny for the equipment it makes earlier as well.
Reached for comment on the Akhnoor and Jaisalmer incidents, OFB spokesperson Gagan Chaturvedi said it can only be offered once the accidents have been investigated.
“All accidents are investigated by a defect investigation team comprising representatives of all stakeholders. This is yet to be undertaken and hence no comment can yet be offered,” Chaturvedi said in a written response to ThePrint.
The OFB, he added, has consistently maintained that accidents are “complex phenomena” that are attributable to a number of causes, including design, storage, maintenance, and shelf-life-related issues.
“Any investigation, therefore, has to be holistic in nature,” the OFB spokesperson said.
The OFB, which functions under the Ministry of Defence’s Department of Defence Production, is one of the oldest state-owned production entities.
Sources in the defence establishment said there have been a lot of problems with regard to quality of ammunition produced by the OFB, an issue they have flagged at multiple levels.
In September last year, the Army, in an internal note, said the use of OFB-manufactured equipment had resulted in over 400 accidents between 2014 and 2019 and led to 27 deaths.
According to the Army’s assessment, it had disposed of ammunition worth Rs 658.58 crore within its shelf life between April 2014 and April 2019.
The OFB, which has 41 factories, countered the claim by issuing a statement where it said only 19 per cent of the accidents involving defence ammunition between January 2015 and December 2019 could be attributed to the board.
It also sought to note that 19 of the 27 fatalities cited in the Army assessment occurred in the 2016 accidental mine explosion at a depot in Pulgaon, Maharashtra.
The accident, the board said, involved anti-tank mines that had been developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and were manufactured strictly according to their design. “Design deficiencies were subsequently noticed and suitable changes are being evaluated,” it said.
The government is keen on corporatisation of the OFB but efforts to this end have not been successful yet.
In July last year, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved the conversion of the OFB “into one or more than one 100 per cent government-owned corporate entities”.
On Wednesday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh held a high-level meeting to explore possible actions to make ordnance factories more robust in keeping with the prevailing and futuristic defence requirements of the country.