The Pulgaon accident has reignited the debate over safety of ammunition storage. That debate should consider these nuances of ammunition management
Dealing with ammunition is one of the most lethal tasks in the army. It is hardly realised that ammunition is more unpredictable than the enemy, and soldiers deal with it on a regular basis. On May 31, an accident at the central ammunition depot (CAD) in Pulgaon, near Nagpur in Maharashtra, saw the loss of 19 lives, including those of firefighters and two officers.
Without going into any professional explanations, the nation and its people first need to recognise the valour and sheer selflessness of the braveheart soldiers and firemen who rushed to the site of the accident to prevent the fire from spreading. They succeeded in localising the fire to a single shed, thus avoiding a potential catastrophe. It called for a herculean effort on the part of the administrative officer, security officer and the firefighting team, all led by the deputy commandant of the depot. They probably knew that while performing their duties it could be the last act of their life. Yet, none flinched from going ahead into the jaws of death and saving the day for the army and the nation, in true martial traditions.
Ammunition management, including storage, supply and transportation, involves chemicals, their various combinations, the environment, climatic conditions and continuous state of degradation of the dangerous components. The army has to maintain enough ammunition stock to fight a 40-day war at intense rates of consumption. There is a need for technical storage capacity for that quantity; it is not just a question of storing some material. Currently, the army is holding only 20 days’ worth of its requirement, so in the future, stocks held on ground in depots around the country will actually double. The current holding state of 50 percent has been the status for fairly long. Each year, a percentage of the ammunition overcomes shelf life and has to be destroyed, apart from the consumption of a certain percentage on training. It is estimated that the army will need '97,000 crore if it wishes to make up its deficiency over the next few years.
If such a thing happens, then the army’s biggest problem would be storage. It would then be forced to stack much of its ammunition in open plinths, separated of course by recommended distances but covered by tarpaulins and completely vulnerable to the elements. It would give a great boost to the tarpaulin industry, no doubt. That, however, would be quickly offset by the potential insecurity arising from the presence of sensitive and constantly degrading ammunition in open storage, ripe for accidental discharge. This, of course, will happen if there is no commensurate increase in the storage facilities at our various ammunition depots. It took the huge accident at the field ammunition depot, Lalgarh Jattan (Rajasthan), in 2002 before the construction of ammunition storage was speeded up with additional allocation of budget. Around 85 percent of the army’s ammunition was earlier stored in open air stacks. Mercifully, that figure has improved by a huge margin after the Lalgarh Jattan incident, although authentic figures are still not available.
As the reader would have gleaned from the above, the stand-out issues in ammunition storage are the facts that ammunition is usually in an unpredictable state and its storage has technical parameters which cannot be ignored. While the army’s quantity of stored ammunition is huge and yet it is being increased to desired stock levels, there has been inadequate allocation of budget for construction of the state-of-the-art facilities for storage of all of it. This forces the ammunition to be stored in open air stacks, making it even more vulnerable given India’s extreme temperatures.
In the case of the CAD Pulgaon, while the ammunition was in the authorised storage as per norms, it is learnt from unofficial sources that the fuses of some anti-tank mines apparently leaked and the chemicals, being in a sensitive state, caught fire starting the inferno. The CAD Pulgaon is also the depot which disposes maximum unserviceable ammunition, the holding of which in separate shelters is always risky. Pulgaon is located near Nagpur in a region where temperatures cross 46 degree celsius in summers, causing further degradation and higher risk in handling ammunition.
The man who heads the army’s ammunition management system is the master general of the ordnance (MGO), a principal staff officer to the army chief. Under him, but headed by its own director general, exists the entire army ordnance corps (AOC) which apart from other responsibilities has a core set of officers, JCOs and soldiers who undergo intense technical training to undertake the task of handling ammunition. Storage, inspection, repairs and disposal are their responsibility, besides the onerous task of ensuring that the right type and quantity of ammunition is provided to the formations and units to undertake their operational tasks. It is these men who man the ammunition depots.
The 20-day stock of ammunition that is currently held is dispersed all over northern, eastern and western India, in depots which cater for storage, servicing, repair, disposal and supply of ammunition. This ammunition is stored in composite lots dispersed all over the country for obvious reasons of security and optimisation of the time taken for delivery. Individual ammunition items would of course be stocked separately, only the package requirement in a theatre being composite. There are field ammunition depots (FADs) which cater for supply of ammunition within the theatre (Command). There is further distribution of stocks at the tactical level but the mother depot which stocks the largest quantity and variety is the central ammunition depot, Pulgaon. This depot, spread over 7,000 acres, stores almost every type of ammunition in the inventory of the army. Technical parameters of different types are necessary for many of the ammunitions such as guided missiles and phosphorous-based munitions. The former requires refrigeration/air-conditioning while the latter needs quantities of water for contingencies when it may overheat. There are also special parameters for the type of mixing of ammunition that can be done for storage. There are norms approved for this under the guidelines of the United Nations.
Ammunition depots are supposed to be away from all habitation as accidents can be expected and collateral effects can travel to the local habitation. However, with pressure on buildable land and sometimes the need to store some ammunition within formations units for immediate movement, there have to be deviations from norms. Progressively these deviations are seen becoming routine, necessitating that this trend be arrested. Deviations mean compromising safety norms which further means playing with lives of people, something completely unacceptable. A classic example is the air force ammunition depot in Gurgaon around which builder lobbies have exploited every inch of land and the air force authorities have not been able to exercise their discretion due to encroachment and litigation.
More such cases exist in the country and need immediate attention of the judiciary. Lastly, it is for public information that when the nation’s security demands a certain size of its armed forces, it is also the nation’s responsibility to provide the means to maintain such forces. To have 100 guns, provide ammunition for only 50 and the storage means for the resources to support 25 is the most unprofessional way of managing national security. The defence budget is sufficient only to cater to the progressive building of facilities to permanently accommodate troops, stores, vehicles and ammunition. Till then they are housed or stored in improvised accommodation. This is the bane of the system because it will take many years before key location plans (KLPs) will be ready for all the formations/units/establishments of the armed forces. The Lalgarh Jattan incident taught us the need to prioritise the placement of ammunition under technical storage. Hopefully, the CAD Pulgaon incident will be thoroughly investigated and lessons from that be placed in public domain to enable the complete avoidance of any incident in the future. In fact, ammunition accidents should be treated like aircraft accidents, placing all information and lessons from investigation in the public domain to enable all communities to benefit from the lessons learnt.
Lt General Ata Hasnain (veteran) is a former general officer commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, which fought the 1965 War in J&K. He retired as the military secretary of the Indian army. Currently, he is associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group
(The article appears in June 15-30, 2016 edition of Governance Now)