Logistics: Desperate And Explosive Frugality


September 23, 2017: In August 2017 there were two explosions in ammunition storage facilities in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. To assure people that this was not an Islamic terrorist attack, the Kurdish police released some details, admitting that one explosion was the result of an electrical fire. But then it leaked out that another reason the Kurds were investigating was the instability of some of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) ammunition and explosives it had captured and put into storage over the last few months. Then it came out that the cause of at least one explosion may have been unstable locally manufactured explosives recently captured from ISIL weapons manufacturing facilities the Kurds seized intact near Mosul. It was no secret that that Kurds had been keeping captured weapons since they became autonomous in the early 1990s. The U.S. has been trying to get those older artillery and mortar systems replaced with newer stuff, mainly because these weapons were worn out and unreliable. But obtaining any new weapons and ammo for the Kurds has always been complicated by the fact that the Iraqi government wants to withhold such aid because they fear that they may have to fight the Kurds again. That is mainly about the Kurds taking control of oil fields in areas they control and exporting it via Turkey. Then there is the fact that the Kurds are more effective fighters than the Iraqi Arabs. Further complicating the situation is Iraqi Kurds plan to conduct a referendum in areas they control to see how many Iraqis (mostly Kurds) living in the autonomous north are willing to back independence. This vote, despite considerable opposition from just about anyone who is not a Kurd, is set to take place on September 25 th . In that respect these accidental explosions distracted the media, for a few hours anyway.

Despite these explosions the Kurds are more diligent than Arab Iraqis in storing ammunition, not just because some of it is old but because Cold War era ammo made for Russian and Chinese weapons is notorious for not aging well and the American warned them early on, as provided tech assistance in storing explosives safely. But that isn’t always enough. Since the 1990s there have been numerous explosions worldwide that involved Russian or Chinese made ammo that got too old and/or was stored improperly. After 2000 the Russians, embarrassed by this as they sought to sell new weapons and munitions to old customers made an effort to help nations, especially in Africa and the Middle East, who still had a lot of that old stuff in storage, on how to inspect and detect ammo that was dangerous. The Russians also provided help in safely disposing of the older, unstable munitions.

Despite that effort embarrassing accidents still took place, although not as frequently. In early 2014 an explosion in a military ammunition warehouse in southern Congo killed at least twenty and more than fifty were wounded. The cause was a lightning strike that started a fire that reached some of the ammo before firefighting efforts could deal with it. This took place near Congo’s third-largest city, Mbuji-Mayi. Like many African countries Congo received ammo supplies from Western and Russian sources since the 1960s and a lot of it was never used and has simply grown old and unstable. Heeding advice from Russian and Chinese arms experts the African nations were making an effort to improve the security of these ammo dumps, to make theft (which means moving this dangerous stuff) or spontaneous detonation (from age and heat) less likely. Russia could speak from recent experience in such matters. From 2008-12 Russia suffered 17 of these ammo depot explosions, all of which included some fatalities. While there were five of these incidents in 2012, there were only two in 2013 and hardly any since 2014. The new safety measures were less enthusiastically embraced outside Russia, especially in parts of Africa where fighting was still going on and chaos was the rule. For example the Congo had planned to upgrade ammo depots to better handle lightning problems, but the Mbuji-Mayi ammo storage site had not yet been upgraded to deal with that. By 2017 Congo was drifting towards another civil war and ammo warehouse safety was no longer a top priority.

These ammo explosions are a common problem in countries that have long used ammunition bought from Russia or China. During the communist period (1920s-1991), as per the Soviet custom, old ammunition was not destroyed, but kept around. Communist countries were poor. It made sense to keep those old mortar and artillery shells (plus bombs and military explosives) for the inevitable war with the enemies of socialism. But the chemical reactions taking place in propellants and explosives after these items are manufactured followed their own schedule and that eventually led to dangerous side effects. Over time, the compounds, that make the propellants and explosives work, deteriorate and change. This renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in many cases, unstable and very dangerous or use or just move. Russia had more of a problem with this than China, which could afford to dispose of older munitions and had much less older stuff stored away.

Africa has been the scene of many of these explosions, largely because of the climate (often hot and damp) and the most lax safety standards. Another problem in Africa is that ammo storage facilities are often in urban areas. Thus there are often hundreds of civilian deaths. As is common in Africa, military units are often based inside major cities, the better to deal with any attempts to overthrow the government. Large quantities of ammunition are often stored on these urban bases, so the troops can quickly handle any contingency. African armies tend to be poorly trained and led, which often expresses itself in sloppy safety procedures and hazardous handling of munitions.

The danger is not over once the explosions have died down. Many shells and rockets are thrown, unexploded, hundreds of meters from the storage area. These will have to be carefully removed before someone, or an animal, disturbs the munition and sets it off. Some of these munitions are buried in the wreckage of damaged or destroyed structures. After the 1990s ammunition explosions like this became increasingly common. Until about 2010 there was usually one big explosion somewhere, and 10-20 smaller ones, each year. There are still some small ones, but far fewer of the big ones.

Even recently manufactured ammo can accidentally detonate if not stored or handled properly. You cannot be too careful how you store, and handle, this stuff. For example, in 2010 four Ukrainian sailors were seriously injured when two 30mm cannon shells spontaneously exploded. Actually, those shells didn't go off entirely without warning. The navy reported that the shells were old, beyond their “use by” date, and were probably set off by vibrations ships generate during training exercises.

This sort of thing has been the cause of many spontaneous explosions on Russian ships and in ammunition depots, even before the Cold War ended in 1991. These accidents also happen while efforts to safely dispose of it are underway. In 2008 an Albanian ammunition processing facility north of the capital exploded. There were over 200 casualties, including at least nine dead (largely among the 4,000 civilians living nearby). Over 300 buildings were destroyed, and over 2,000 damaged. The facility was used to destroy old ammo, which was a condition for Albania to join NATO. There were about 100,000 tons of old ammunition in Albania, and the destroyed facility dismantled 500-600 tons of the stuff each month. The explosion in Albania probably occurred during the process of extracting explosives from the old ammo. This can be tricky, as the least little spark, can set this stuff off. Worse, older ammo in an unstable state can go off without a spark. This sort of thing is what makes the crudely made ISIL explosives so dangerous.

Russia has long had problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. One saving grace was that Russia tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint after the 1990s and disposed of huge quantities of Cold War surplus munitions.

The Iraqi Kurds may have a similar problem in future. For the Kurds, that would be good news because that would mean they were no longer in danger of running out of ammo and explosives when they need that stuff most.