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Overcoming Ammunition Shortages and Internal Bureaucratic Hurdles

The Ordnance Factory Board HQ in Kolkata is misalig-ned with the mod. Shifting it to Delhi is mandatory

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In July, the CAG report to parliament stated that critical shortages, especially in artillery and tank ammunition, in the Army limited its fighting capacity to 10-20 days in a war. In the heat of the Doklam crisis, the report raised concerns. Factually the CAG report was correct. However, 10-20 days reserve of ammunition means that everyone can fire all weapons in battle on all fronts for 10-20 days intensely. In practice, there are lulls in battle; not all fronts are active and not all weapons are needed all the time. If the situation was so grim, the Defence Minister, Chief of Army Staff and GOC in C, Eastern Command would not have handled the Doklam situation with the confidence they did. Severe ammunition shortages might have forced us to capitulate. Outcomes might have been different. However, there is no doubt that there are some critical ammunition shortages in the Indian Army, which need to be made good systematically with purpose. Otherwise, in a graver crisis we might be found wanting.

Taking Stock

Ammunition planning is a complex process requiring knowledge and expertise. Indian Army is required to hold 40 days stock of ammunition as ‘war wastage reserves’. The government also has a concept of MARL (minimum acceptable risk level) of 20 days for different ammunition based on availability and operational utility. For missiles, the levels are different and sometimes laid down in numbers. Building up stocks to these levels has three dimensions. First, it must be in tune with weapon procurement and development. For instance, if we develop or procure new 155 mm guns to replace old 105mm guns, we need to ramp up procurement of 155 mm ammunition and liquidate 105mm ammunition held in stock. It has cost, time and capacity implications. Ammunition liquidation is largely by destruction. Second, ammunition supply must cater for annual training requirements and shelf life expiry (10- 15 years). This routine requirement if not met, will result in shortages. Importantly if the quality of ammunition or storage is poor; the problem starts. Inferior quality reduces shelf life or results in accidents. This creates unplanned shortages of ammunition. This can be compounded by poor planning and management practices. If files are not processed in time, orders and clearances delayed, there is bureaucratic lethargy, inadequate knowledge, poor forecasting, vested interests, poor production processes, lack of accountability and poor leadership, shortages will balloon. This has happened now. This is the third and most important dimension which needs to be addressed.

Additional Planning Factors
Stocks built up very quickly, will go out of stock equally quickly at the end of their shelf life. Hence build up must be an incrementally sustained. Modernisation comes at a cost. Rockets and missiles tend to be expensive. So, budgetary issues kick in. All varieties of ammunition are not required to be held at the maximum levels all the time. Overstocking any ammunition means, liquidation. Ammunition does not get recycled. There is no requirement to keep stocks at max levels. It is a dead waste. We should be at a level from where we can surge our production to meet our requirement.

Perform of Perish

Indian Army procures ammunition largely from the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), foreign sources and some from PSUs/Indian industry. Majority of ammunition is produced by OFB from a network of factories. OFB has great expertise in ammunition manufacture. Some of its plants are very modern. It has a monopoly. Yet delivery is poor. The CAG report squarely blames the OFB for ammunition shortages, pinpointing problems: inferior quality, delivery slippages and no functional improvement in its factories since 2013. OFB should be made to perform or perish.

Making OFB deliver is the crux of the problem. It is an open secret that OFB needs modernisation and reform urgently. Problem areas have been identified by many government committees. Common recommendations are: corporatisation, privatisation, breaking into smaller clusters, introducing competitiveness, incentivisation, penalisation, improving efficiency and inculcating quality consciousness. The mystery is why no concrete action is taken. If the nation has invested heavily in the OFB, it should be made to perform.

First and foremost, the government should implement the Raman Puri Committee (the latest committee on reforming OFB) recommendations in a time bound manner. Second, quality control should be the focus. If needed, third-party quality control can be brought in. Accountability and penalty for inferior quality and production standards must be built in. Third, the OFB HQ sitting in Kolkata is out of sync and misaligned with the Army and MOD. Shifting it to Delhi alongside other government departments is mandatory. Fourth, the OFB needs devolution of financial powers and orders on a roll on basis over a three-year period. The present annual system of order placement and delivery has only led to delays and abysmal quality. Fifth, army officers should be inducted into the ordnance factories and the Board.
Going The Private Route
The next major option is to privatise OFB like it has been done in UK. It cannot be done immediately since Indian Industry lacks expertise. Hence a PPP model can be adopted wherein a factory can be part divested to the Indian Industry and run on commercial basis in a competitive framework. The factories that can be immediately divested are the Small Arms Ammunition Factories. They can be made competitive if they are commercially run on a PPP model.

Encouraging Indian Industry
India procures ammunition from foreign sources when weapons are foreign and indigenisation has lagged. In the short run, we might have to continue with this arrangement to make good critical deficiencies. However, in the long run we need to insist on ToT to an Indian partner in the private sector. Slowly our dependence on foreign firms should reduce. Already, Indian industry is being co-opted to manufacture ammunition which is designed and developed by DRDO. India also procures some ammunition from PSUs and Indian industry. However, the quantum is small and confined to niche ammunition. Primarily Indian industry lacks expertise in handling explosives and ammunition manufacture. Putting out RFPs to Indian industry to supply ammunition is only a backdoor method of getting foreigner players in. Indian firms do not have it in them yet. They need to gain expertise and not become glorified official middlemen.

Government Will – A Necessity
Ammunition shortages can be overcome if the government wills it. The problem is old. The CAG has tabled such reports earlier. Gen V.K. Singh, as the COAS had apprised the government about it. However, it was not taken seriously. If it means business, the government should provision enhanced budgetary support. Streamlining bureaucratic procedures to ensure that cases are cleared in time is mandatory. When Manohar Parrikar took over as Defence Minister, the system started turning. Things started falling into place including OFB. The confidence in handling the Doklam situation stemmed from that effort.

However, it will take time to reach a comfortable level. For example, the CAG report has highlighted severe shortage of artillery fuses. The situation in 2012-2013 was worse. The only assembly line of electronic fuses was near idle. Shortages accumulated. Training was severely curbed. The files to place orders were not cleared by the MOD despite best efforts of the Army for years!  When Parrikar assumed chair, the problem was put across to him. He understood its gravity and gave it a correct push. In two years, the electronic fuse line of ECIL was loaded to capacity, a mechanical fuse line of OFB was reopened and a new electronic fuse line of BEL was established.

We are still short of fuses but we now have three production lines humming and delivering. There are other examples too which can be quoted. We have covered some ground. More is to be covered. I sincerely wish or new Defence Minister all the best in making up our ammunition deficiencies. She has her task cut out to improve the situation. My only advice to her is – the woods are lovely dark and deep, we have miles to go before we sleep.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Lt Gen. P.R. Shankar (Retired)

The writer was Director General of Artillery till October 2016. He is presently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras

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