The board of a centuries-old artillery factory in India fails to repair its military equipment


In mid-June, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the Indian cabinet had decided to abolish the Ordnance Factory Board, the national body that oversees the production of defense equipment ranging from ammunition to armored vehicles. The 41 existing factories, scattered across India, will now be grouped into seven units. Each new consolidated entity will focus on a particular element of military production. The Vehicles group, for example, will be responsible for the development of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and mine protected vehicles. The Ammunition and Explosives group will produce ammunition and explosives, both for domestic needs and for export.

This reform, once implemented, will be dramatic. This would end an organization with a history of over 300 years, dating back to the days of the East India Company, which preceded formal British colonial rule in India. Under his aegis, a gunpowder factory was established in the present state of West Bengal as early as 1787. To this day, a government-run factory that manufactures rifles for the armed forces and civilians exists at this location. Under the British, 18 more factories were built under the Ordnance Factory Board, and a host of more were built after India gained independence in 1947.

In mid-June, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the Indian cabinet had decided to abolish the Ordnance Factory Board, the national body that oversees the production of defense equipment ranging from ammunition to armored vehicles. The 41 existing factories, scattered across India, will now be grouped into seven units. Each new consolidated entity will focus on a particular element of military production. The Vehicles group, for example, will be responsible for the development of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and mine protected vehicles. The Ammunition and Explosives group will produce ammunition and explosives, both for domestic needs and for export.

This reform, once implemented, will be dramatic. This would end an organization with a history of over 300 years, dating back to the days of the East India Company, which preceded formal British colonial rule in India. Under his aegis, a gunpowder factory was established in the present state of West Bengal as early as 1787. To this day, a government-run factory that manufactures rifles for the armed forces and civilians exists at this location. Under the British, 18 more factories were built under the Ordnance Factory Board, and a host of others were built after India gained independence in 1947.

What explains the government’s decision to disrupt the organization of this vast and sprawling factory complex? The reasons given, at least at first glance, have considerable meaning. According to the government, the restructuring plans are designed to make factories more productive and profitable, to improve their competitiveness, and to improve quality and improve profitability.

A process of rationalization and rationalization is in fact expected, the factories employing more than 100,000 people. The historical and current production record of the companies was not a source of inspiration. During the tenure of VK Krishna Menon, the Indian Minister of Defense who presided over the disastrous Sino-Indian border war in 1962, munitions factories were producing coffee percolators, among other things, despite a shortage of live ammunition. Multiple sources, both journalistic and academic, affirm that this story is far from apocryphal.

Even after the debacle of the 1962 border war, the performance of these factories was far from exemplary. They have been plagued by significant cost overruns, persistent delays in product delivery and often poor quality results. Even today, after decades of efforts, they have failed to produce a reliable standard rifle for the Indian armed forces. The current model, the INSAS, tends to overheat in combat conditions, has a tendency to jam, and is known to spray combat personnel with oil when in use. Since munitions factories are the only suppliers of this weapon, they have not been subjected to any form of market discipline.

The INSAS, of course, is not the only weapon known for its sub-par performance. A host of other products from India’s munitions factories were found insufficient. Even boots and uniforms were a problem, forcing soldiers to get theirs. India’s Defense Ministry has been aware of the complaints for some time and has even expressed annoyance with its lack of innovation and unreliable products.

Such problems are, without a doubt, real and compelling. However, munitions factories alone should not bear the brunt of the blame. In large part, they depend on another giant government entity: the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), a collection of defense laboratories that produce many prototype weapons. Created in 1958, it is believed today that this institution manages up to 50 laboratories and employs more than 20,000 scientific and technical personnel.

Like the factories that produce what the DRDO develops, its record is far from exceptional. It is also known for its delays, cost overruns, and most importantly, poor defense equipment design. For example, the Arjun, which was supposed to be India’s main battle tank, was developed under the auspices of the DRDO and manufactured in an ammunition factory. It is riddled with problems. Among other things, the tank’s sheer weight limited its range of deployment. Many bridges in Punjab, India, bordering Pakistan, simply cannot support the weight of the tank.

It is not the only white elephant that the Indian defense industry establishment has produced. Despite plans for the development of a native engine for an Indian Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) as early as 1983, last year the project had shown little promise. Instead, all versions of the LCA depend on foreign engines, including the latest model in development.

Ultimately, the main issues facing India’s defense industry establishment are not the organization of the Ordnance Factory Board but two other issues. First, it has, for the most part, been immune from competition, both domestic and foreign. As a result, there was little incentive to cut costs, improve efficiency or innovate. Second, although it has been the subject of occasional scrutiny by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the lack of sufficient parliamentary interest and expertise has allowed the industrial establishment to fail. the defense skillfully avoids scrutiny by relying on an array of mirrors.

Unless the latest reform is implemented with these issues in mind – and there is little indication that this will be the case – the dramatic announcement could simply prompt a rearrangement of lounge chairs on a ship in the process of sinking. sink.


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