Leadership: When Reality Blows Up In Your Face


October 11, 2017: In early September one of the new Indian M777 155mm howitzers was badly damaged when the shell exploded in the barrel. The shell used, an ERFB (Extended Range Full Bore) type is a common design and the M777s used by India had fired 1,163 of those rounds before the M777 accident. Sometimes accidents like this can be blamed on a problem with the howitzer but in this case there was another likely culprit. This was the third time in the last four months that an Indian made 155mm ERFB shell had exploded in the barrel. The first two incidents occurred when OFB (Ordnance Factories Board) shells were fired from prototypes of the new Indian Dhanush howitzers. Now the investigation is concentrating on the quality of the Indian made ammo rather than possible flaws in the OFB developed Dhanush. This is not the first time OFB produced ammo has been found to be defective and it has occurred with mortar shells as well. These incidents of defective ammo occur at a much higher rate for OFB made shells than those coming from commercial firms.

While India has already made arrangements to build British developed M777 155mm howitzers it still has an Indian firm seeking to build a new one based on the Swedish Bofors howitzers that were imported in the 1980s. The Indian version, called Dhanush is a towed 155mm howitzer with a longer barrel (and longer range) than the Bofors design. Three prototypes were turned over to the army for tests in July and failed. The Indian OFB built the prototypes and has a contract for producing 114 of them with the first 18 to be delivered by the end of 2017. But that only happens of the Dhanush passes acceptance tests by the army and it is common for OFB built weapons and ammunition to fail, often repeatedly.

The state owned Ordnance Factories Board has long had for producing weapons ammunition. In 2016 that began to change. There are several sound reasons for the change. Civilian firms have long demonstrated that weapons and ammo can be made cheaper, of higher quality and faster if state owned manufacturing is not involved. But the OFB has more powerful allies in the government than any foreign supplier, no matter how superior their product may be.

The OFB began in 1775 as part of the British East India Company (which colonized, unified and industrialized India) which sought to create a local source of gunpowder and other munitions while also controlling who had access to it. When British India became independent in 1947 India inherited the OFB, along with a nationwide bureaucracy, a common language (English) for government and commerce and a preference for socialism (in the form of state controlled monopolies). Britain got rid of its state owned firms in the 1980s and India, for much the same reasons, followed suit in the 1990s. But there was one major difference in India and that was the long established use of government jobs as a form of patronage (to help get elected). This exists in many other democracies but India had a particularly nasty addiction to this sort of thing. Thus Indian primary education is still a shambles (because teaching jobs often go to incompetent or non-existent people) and state owned defense industries were perpetually overstaffed and inefficient. The same can be said for OFB and many other state owned firms (like the railroads).

This 155mm shell disaster comes a year after India finally eliminated the monopoly the OFB had long had for producing ammunition. This change has been long sought. There are several sound reasons for the change. Civilian firms have long demonstrated that the ammo can be made cheaper, of higher quality and faster if state owned manufacturing is not involved. But maintaining a credible military in the face of threats from China and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan (and its nukes) means the largest (in terms of population) nation on the planet will never be self-sufficient in ammunition manufacturing unless it allows privately owned Indian firms to participate. The elimination of the OFB monopoly means politicians will lose control over more than 100,000 jobs. But the other 99.99 percent of Indians will benefit from a more effective national defense plus opportunities for more jobs. The private ammo manufacturers can export, which state owned firms have been ineffective at. The private industry offers fewer, but better quality (in terms of pay, skills and opportunities) jobs. It has not gone unnoticed that India has fallen behind China in defense matters largely because China allows private firms to design, manufacture and sell military equipment to the Chinese military and a growing list of export customers.

Initial needs were mostly for Russian designed ammo (unguided rockets, 125mm tank shells, 23mm and 30mm autocannon shells) as well as a growing number of Western designs (40mm grenades and 155mm artillery shells). The government allows Indian firms to make deals with foreign manufacturers in order to obtain needed design and manufacturing technology. Indian firms have already been doing this increasing since the 1990s for non-military items and that has led to Indian innovations and efficiency conspicuously absent in state owned firms.

The new controversy over OFB made 155mm shells means there will be a lot less political opposition to obtaining 155mm ERFB shells from commercial suppliers rather than continue production by the OFB while politicians argue over the merits of buying safer ammo that does not come from the OFB.