- Army did field trials for new US-made Howitzer, barrel exploded
- Army officers blame ammunition made by state-run manufacturer
- Over 1,000 rounds were fine, problem came later: manufacturer
But today, in a statement to NDTV, the state-owned manufacturer which supplies at least 90 per cent of artillery shells in use with the Army, seemed to suggest that the failure was not unusual. "The number of rounds successfully fired during user trial with ERFB BT ammunition from [the] M-777 howitzer gun were more than 1,100 and the round in which malfunction occurred was [the] 1164th round," said Dr U Mukherjee, a spokesperson for the manufacturer.
When asked if this failure rate was acceptable, Mr Mukherjee said "Ideally, this is not acceptable."
Senior officers of the army told NDTV that the manufacturer's explanation was unacceptable and that they expect consistency in the quality of ammunition supplied to them. Experts from the Ordnance Board have visited the site of the trials and interacted with executives from BAE Systems, the manufacturer of the M-777 to determine what went wrong.
The OFB manufacturers shell hardware at the Ordnance Factory Ambajhari, Nagpur. Explosives are filled at its facilities at Chandrapur in Maharashtra and Bolangir in Odisha.
India received two M-777 ultra-light howitzers in May, each worth around Rs 35 crore. This was the first time that the army imported an artillery gun in more than three decades, when the Bofors scandal erupted over kickbacks allegedly paid by the Swedish manufacturer to politicians and others. The new guns were being put through field trials in Pokhran in Rajasthan using ammunition made by the Ordnance Factory Board or OFB, which is run by the Defence Ministry.
The army has received two howitzers as part of an order for 145 guns for nearly 5,000 crores. Three more guns are to be supplied to the army next year for training. The guns will be introduced in 2019 in stages. The order is to be completed by the middle of 2022.
While 25 guns will come in off-the-shelf condition, ready for use, the rest will be assembled in India by the BAE Systems in partnership with Mahindra Defence.
The gun, which can be slung under a helicopter, is meant to be deployed at high-altitude locations along the China boundary.
The Ordnance Factory Board also refuses to take full responsibility after the barrels of two prototypes of the indigenous Dhanush artillery gun were also damaged by faulty shells in May and July. According to the OFB, "Any such failure is attributable to a complex phenomena pertaining to internal ballistics since the shell moves at a very high speed inside the barrel. Failure can have multiple causes. Quality of shell is not the only reason for failure." The Dhanush, which is based on blue-prints of the Bofors gun, has cleared trials with the Indian Army and has a proven ability to strike targets 38 km away. The army plans to acquire 414 Dhanush guns with each gun reportedly costing 14 crores.
This is not the first time that the Ordnance Factory Board and the Indian Army have openly disagreed on the quality of weaponry produced by the public sector company. In July, the OFB said its indigenous new assault Rifle "functioned flawlessly without any stoppages" despite an army report stating that the weapon "requires comprehensive design analysis and improvement."