How the Ordnance Factories, Defence Ministry and Bureaucrats Have Created A Crisis of Ammunition Shortage in India

The Comptroller and Auditor General's 2017 report on ammunition management in the army noted that ''no significant improvement took place in the critical deficiency in availability and quality of ammunition.'' TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
20 October, 2017

Within three weeks into the Siachen conflict during the Kargil war in 1999, India ran low on ammunition, and approached South Africa to help replenish its stocks. That year, the news website India Today reported that the army was short of at least 300 battle tanks and approximately one thousand 155 mm artillery guns. In 2016, in an article published in the India Defence Review—a quarterly journal and web publcation run by retired army officers—Gurmeet Kanwal, a retired brigadier of the Indian Army, wrote that India had to import 50,000 rounds of artillery ammunition during the conflict. Kanwal is presently a distinguished fellow at the autonomous think-tank the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. In the article, he wrote that India’s defence preparedness and modernisation suffered due to a lack of resources and attention afforded to it by the current central government.

In July this year, a report by the former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Shashi Kant Sharma, was tabled in the Parliament. The report was a performance review of the projects and schemes of the ministry of defence—among other things, it examined the “Ammunition management in Army.” It was the second audit on the army’s ammunition—the first such audit, which was released in 2015, analysed the status of the country’s defence stockpile and production for the period from 2008 to 2013.

The CAG’s 2017 report contained the findings of the follow-up audit on the ammunition management for the period following that covered by the first report, from April 2013 and September 2016. It noted that “no significant improvement took place in the critical deficiency in availability and quality of ammunition.” In September this year, while discussing the report with me, Bhupinder Yadav, a retired major general of the army, said, “You remember, during Siachin time, what General Malik”—the then army general VP Malik—“had said: ‘we will fight with whatever we have.’” “This is the situation now,” Yadav said.

According to the CAG’s 2015 report, the annual provisioning of ammunition is based on the compliance with the War Wastage Reserve scales, which mandates that India should maintain an ammunition stockpile for 40 days of intense war. Additionally, the report notes that, after the Kargil war in 1999, the army headquarters introduced the Minimum Acceptable Risk Level of ammunition, which was considered the “minimum inescapable requirement of ammunition to be maintained at all times to meet operational preparedness.” The MARL mandates that the ammunition stockpile should be sufficient for 20 days of intense war.

The 2015 report reflected the poor status of the ammunition stockpile—74 percent of the 170 types of ammunition failed to meet the MARL requirements, and only 10 percent met the WWR requirements. This year’s report shows minimal progress and significant cause for concern. As of September 2016, the report notes, the army had 152 types of ammunition, of which only 31 types, or 20 percent, met the WWR levels, and 83 types, or 55 percent, did not satisfy even the MARL requirements.

In early September this year, a Press Trust of India report noted that the defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman called the CAG report “factually wrong.” The next day, she denied making such a comment. In his experience, Yadav said, “Every government comes and says there is no problem.” Before his retirement, from 2005 to 2007, Yadav worked as an additional director general in the department of defence production, under the defence ministry. He continued, “But actually there is a problem—and it should be reformed.”

I spoke to at least 20 retired army officials to understand the reasons for the ammunition shortage. Though nearly half of them declined to speak on the record, almost everyone acknowledged that there is a genuine shortage, and that there is a dire need to modernise and develop the ammunition stockpile. The army veterans appeared to have a broad consensus on two reasons for the shortage: the inability of ordnance factories to produce ammunition, and the stringent defence acquisition policies for importing ammunition or buying it from private vendors.

The CAG, too, criticised the ordnance factories for continuously failing to meet the necessary targets. The 2017 report also placed blame on the army headquarters for not coordinating with ordnance authorities while preparing the defence-budget estimate. Sharma, who authored the report, was also the defence secretary from 2011 to 2013, and had served as the director general of defence acquisition in the ministry of defence from 2007 to 2010. CMF Prabhu, a former subordinate of Sharma in the acquisition department and a retired brigadier, told me that the report was “very well thought out.”

Prabhu added, “If we are not getting ammunition, it is because of the procedure laid down.” A retired colonel PK Vasudevan noted that officials were hesitant to buy ammunition from private-sector manufacturers due to a “fear of being caught” in investigations on whether they received any “kickbacks.” Vasudevan said the officers associated with procurement would finish their term safely and “won’t rock the boat.” He added: “They just want to finish their time.”

The main source of ammunition for the army is the Ordnance Factory Board—the apex body for 41 ordnance factories across the country. According to the 2017 report, out of the 41 ordnance factories in India, ten are solely dedicated for manufacturing of ammunitions. During the period from March 2014 to November 2016, the report notes, the OFB was responsible for “catering to 88 to 99 percent of the total requirement of ammunition of Army.” One of the reasons noted by the CAG for the shortage is the failure of the OFB to meet its production targets. From 2009 to 2013, the 2015 report noted, the OFB’s deficiency in meetings its targets increased from 28 percent to 37 percent.

In 2010, the army introduced a “five year Roll-on–Indent” for ammunition provisioning instead of the annual provisioning—through which, the army started issuing five-year targets to the OFB, on the basis of which the ordnance factories prepare annual targets. In the period between 2008 and 2013, the 2015 report noted that of the 48 types of ammunitions examined in the OFB audit, the army’s demands were not met for 54 to 73 percent types of ammunition.

During mid course of the five-year roll-on indent, it added, the army headquarters took cognisance of alarming deficiency levels. The army proposed the introduction of an Ammunition Road Map—“a progressive plan” to build up the WWR stock levels up to 50 percent, or sufficient for 20 days of intense war, by March 2015, and to make up the balance deficiency by March 2019. In June 2013, the defence ministry approved the plan as well as procurement of ammunition for Rs 963 crore from the OFB and Rs 16,593 crore through import.

However, as per the CAG’s 2017 report, these measures do not seem to have made a significant difference. Of the ammunition types audited by the CAG, the OFB’s deficiency in meeting the army’s targets increased to 64 to 95 percent for the period between 2013 and 2017, and over 55 percent types of ammunition were below the MARL level in 2016. Moreover, 40 percent of the types of ammunition were insufficient for even ten days of intense war—which the report noted to be a matter of “high concern.” “Out of 28 cases initiated during 2008-13 for procurement of ammunition ex-import,” the report notes, “only two contracts were concluded.”

One of the most deficient types of ammunition, as of September 2016, is that used for artillery guns, which is crucial for heavy firing, because of the excessive shortage of fuzes. This year’s report notes that a “fuze is the brain of the Artillery ammunition and is fitted to the shell just before assembly/firing.” Without a fuze, the ammunition is useless. According to the report, 83 percent of high-caliber ammunition “were not in a state to be used in operation” due to the non availability of fuzes. The report also notes OFB had failed to supply the targeted fuzes in the period between 2013 and 2016.

Despite attempts, I was unable to contact a representative of the OFB for a comment. On 14 October, I emailed DK Mahapatra, the secretary of the OFB, who is listed on its website as the point of contact for any correspondence, seeking a comment. At the time this story was published, he had not responded.

The deficiency of ammunition has affected the army’s training as well. The report notes that out of the 203 types of training ammunition, the army has put restrictions on the amount of ammunition used for training for 159 types, or 78 percent, of them. The restrictions ranged from 25 percent to 100 percent of different types of ammunition in the period between 2016–17. This is a negligible improvement from the 80 percent types of ammunition that were noted to have restrictions in the 2015 report. The retired major general Yadav said, “the shortage has certainly affected the training.” He used the T9 tank and its high-calibre ammunition, which are considered essential in conventional wars, as an example. “A jawan has not fired a 125 mm APDS in the T9 tank in last ten years,” Yadav said.

However, the ordnance factories are not solely responsible for the failure to resolve the ammunition shortage. VM Kalia, a retired major general, told me that, even though the armed forces adopted a 15-year modernisation plan—based on which the five-year roll on indent is drawn— in 2007, the defence ministry is yet to approve it. “Tell me,” he said, “how will army make its five-year plan then?” Kanwal, the retired brigadier, also wrote in his article in the Indian Defence Review that “without these approvals, defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual procurement plans.”

According to Vasudevan, the government never felt a need to develop the army’s infrastructure because it did not give them any votes. “For them, the home ministry is important.” The army is only called “to control incidents like Panchkula violence,” he added, referring to the violence that swept Haryana’s Panchkula district following the conviction of the self-styled godman Gurmeet Singh in August this year.

Anjan Mukherjee, a retired lieutenant general, has expressed a need for the defence ministry to develop a new policy to deal with the ammunition shortage as well. In an article published in the September–July 2015 issue of the Indian Defence Review, Mukherjee wrote that the production of arms and ammunition should be commercialised. He added that the defence ministry should consider offering licensed domestic companies an opportunity to “support the operationalisation” of ordnance factories. Mukherjee proposed that the Defence Research and Development Organisation—the apex government organisation responsible for the military’s research and development—and the OFB should assist private companies with the technology for the production of ammunition, and lend them weapons for the manufacturing process. “The private industry need not be seen as a competitor,” he wrote, “but as a strategic partner with common goals.” When I reached out to Mukherjee, however, he declined to comment, stating that he had been appointed to the OFB after his retirement, and that it would be “inappropriate” for him to do so.

All the retired officers appeared to share a common aversion for bureaucrats, whom they held responsible for delays in the procurement and modernisation of ammunition in India. The retired colonel Vasudevan said that India’s defence secretaries were Indian Administrative Services officers who had “little understanding of the army.” According to Yadav, though the ordnance factories are incapable of producing the necessary ammunition to replenish the war reserve, the army has not procured anything new from private vendors since 2007. “This is because of the government’s belief that the production of ammunition should be a secret,” he said. He added that “bureaucrats who have their own vested interests” were responsible for this belief.

However, the brigadier Prabhu told me that one of the main reasons for the failure in procurement was that most of India’s ammunition had a Russian-origin design and that “India did not develop the technology to manufacture it.” He added that this was exacerbated by Russia’s failure to transfer the technology to develop the ammunition: “They would keep saying, ‘we will give,’ but they won’t.” “They just wanted us to be dependent on them.” Yadav asked, “If we can buy our ammunitions from foreign countries why can’t we allow our domestic companies to manufacture it?” “The strategic value of ammunition is in the way a country deploys it and not in how she makes it,” he added.

According to RP Dostane, a retired lieutenant general, the Indian defence system needed a model similar to that of the Pentagon in the United States, in which the “defence ministry is integrated” with the armed forces. Kalia, the retired major general, told me that even if the procurement system for ammunitions was updated, the procedure would not move at the ground level. “There are red tapes, objections, non-funding,” he said. “We are fighting, but the defence budget is not supporting our capability.”