Russia is prosecuting officers responsible for safety at an army training area after six paratroopers were killed (and wounded two others) by an old artillery shell at a training range in northwest Russia on October 22nd. The paratroopers were engaged in night training and were returning to their base in total darkness when one of the soldiers tripped on an old artillery shell that had not gone off after hitting the ground years ago. Such shells are often unstable and will often detonate years later if disturbed.
Russia long ignored the huge quantities of Cold War era munitions that were still in storage, or lying about in military training areas, because in the past cleaning up dud shells was never a high priority. That has changed during the last decade as safety issues have become more important in the Russian military, in part because all the media is no longer state controlled and in part because the military is slowly moving away from conscription to an all-volunteer force. So this recent accident, and the loss of six highly trained (and volunteer) airborne troops, struck a nerve in the military, as well as among the population in general. The major difficulty here is that there is a lot of old ammo lying about in Russia and overseas in all those nations that received Russian military aid during the Cold War. It’s a big problem, a worldwide problem.
For example, last June there was another ammunition explosion, this one in Central Russia (near the city of Chapayevsk) where a fire began in an ammo storage base, forcing the evacuation of over 7,000 people. Two people died and 48 were wounded. It took over a week to deal with the aftereffects. Five warehouses were destroyed and over 20,000 shells were thrown (some for over a kilometer) clear and had to be collected for disposal. The damage cost the military nearly $5 million to clean up. Disasters like this are still common in Russia, largely because there is still over six million tons of ammunition in storage, much of it obsolete and in need of disposal. Getting rid of this stuff is expensive and the government has not allocated enough money to get it done quickly. That may be changing.
This is a common problem in countries that have long used ammunition bought from Russia or China. During the communist period, 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 eventually cause dangerous side effects. Over time the compounds that make the propellants and explosives deteriorate and change. This renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in many cases, unstable and very dangerous. This resulted in many spontaneous explosions on Russian ships and in ammunition depots, as well as in long-used training areas where dud shells and bombs were not tended to immediately but just allowed to lie where they fell.
Not enough money is spent to properly take care of what is held in storage. Part of that was because the army used conscripts or minimum-wage civilians to take care of these ammo storage sites. One accident in 2012 was traced to a soldier who carelessly tossed aside a lit cigarette, which led to the disastrous fire.
These accidents also happen outside Russia. In 2008, an Albanian ammunition processing facility exploded. There were over 200 casualties, including at least nine dead (largely among the 4,000 civilians living nearby). At least 300 buildings were destroyed and over 2,000 damaged. This facility was used to destroy old ammo, which is a condition for Albania to be allowed 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 disaster was part of a worldwide trend. In 2007, there was a large explosion in an ammo depot in the African nation of Mozambique. About a hundred died. In 2004, an even greater disaster occurred in Nigeria, when a munitions depot near the capital cooked off, killing over 200 people. In 2002, another ammo storage site in Nigeria exploded, killing over a thousand. Ammunition explosions like this are usually catastrophic. But at least once a year there is a really big one somewhere and 10-20 smaller ones.
Russia had plenty of warning about the growing problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. In the 1990s, there were several munitions depot explosions, some of them quite spectacular. Russia tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint and began slowly disposing of huge quantities of Cold War surplus munitions. The problem is there is so much old stuff to deal with and now the military has to deal with the fact that many military training areas have also been used for live firing of aircraft bombs, mortars, and artillery and clearing away all the duds is now a higher priority.