Peace Time: Explosively Old And Cranky


October 31, 2020: On October 7, 2020 a Russian army munitions storage site outside Moscow caught fire, leading to a lot of munitions detonating before firefighters could bring the blaze under control. This site holds about 75,000 tons of munitions, some of it elderly Cold-War era stuff awaiting disposal. Some 2,300 civilians living within five kilometers of the fire were temporarily evacuated as about 400 fire fighters sought to contain the fire and prevent more munitions from exploding.

Russia continues to remove aging Cold War era munitions from storage facilities so the stuff can be safely disposed of. Russia has been having these munitions depot explosions regularly since the 1990s. The solution is to dispose of the elderly munitions, which comprise most of what is in these many depots. Disposal has been slow because the Russian military budget has been chaotic since the 1990s and since 2015 that budget has been shrinking because of low oil prices, economic sanctions (for invading Ukraine) and now the covid19 economic slowdown. Disposing of elderly munitions is not considered a top priority. That decision comes at a cost.

For example, in August 2019 Russia suffered three explosions caused by elderly or defective munitions. Two of the explosions took place at the same storage facility in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. This remote area is literally in the middle of Russia, halfway between the Polish border and the Pacific Ocean to the east. This is an ideal place to store old ammo because Krasnoyarsk comprises about ten percent of Russia’s land area and only two percent of the population. The easiest way in or out is the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The first explosion occurred at the Kamenka ammo depot on August 5th. This caused one death and at least ten injured. Some 16,000 civilians were forced to leave their homes to avoid the possibility of injury from shells being propelled by explosions into their communities. All these evacuees had to spend nearly a week at least 20 kilometers from the depot. Fortunately, the weather was comfortably warm during August. The rest of the year it is cold, very cold or freezing.

The first explosion was blamed on human error, which is common during efforts to remove and dispose of elderly and unstable ammo. Russia still relies on conscripts to keep the military up to strength and even though a few experienced ammo handling personnel are available to supervise, the actual work of handling this stuff is done by unskilled teenage conscripts. Someone made a mistake and what was described as a “human error” caused a fire and explosion which quickly spread. One unfortunate side effect of that was to damage the lightning protection system. Lightning strikes are common during the warm weather and a common cause of forest fires in this heavily forested region. A week later while the cleanup was still underway lightning struck causing a second fire and more explosions.

Meanwhile, far to the west, off the northern coast there was another accidental explosion but this time it was a new, experimental 9M730 Burevestnik cruise missile that had a nuclear-powered engine. NATO calls this missile Skyfall. Apparently one of these explosions occurred while was trying to recover a Skyfall missile that had gone down in coastal waters during a recent flight test. The missile exploded on August 8th after it had been found and taken out of the water and onto a salvage ship. Their technical personnel were seeking to safely remove and store the nuclear power supply. Something went wrong and seven people died in the explosion and several more got large doses of radiation. This accident is typical of the larger number of explosive accidents Russia suffers during testing of or training with new weapons.

Russia has exported some of its explosive problems. Not all the elderly and accident-prone Russian ammo is in Russia, or even Russian-made. In November 2018 there was a fatal accident involving elderly or defective Russian ammunition in India. This country is, next to Russia, the largest user of Russian built or designed ammo. This incident took place in an Indian munitions depot where elderly and defective ammo was sent to be disposed of, usually via controlled explosion. The ammo in question was 23mm autocannon shells which, while not old, were considered flawed and production, at an Indian plant, had been halted in 2014 and existing 23mm rounds of that design were ordered destroyed. This is done by placing the ammo in a pit, covering them with sandbags and then blowing them up with an explosive charge. While the 23mm shells were being moved to the destruction site some went off during handling. Six people were killed.

India has produced Russian weapons and ammo under license since the 1960s. Russian production standards were never very high, especially for military ammo, but the Russians considered Indian standards even worse. In the case of the Indian made 23mm cannon rounds the problem revealed itself when there were several incidents of 23mm shells detonating while being handled. In 2016 there was another incident in which defective anti-tank mines in which their explosives were seeping out and some mines had become unstable. One of these defective mines went off leaving sixteen dead. More recently it was defective 155mm artillery ammo.

Meanwhile Russian munitions storage sites continued to explode. In early 2018, for the second time since 2011, there was a major accident at the Pugachyovo ammo depot in the Ural Mountains. The 2018 incident was much smaller than the one in 2011. The 2018 incident did not kill anyone and only about 2,000 civilians had to be evacuated while nearly 500 firefighters put out the fires and prevented more damage. In mid-2011 this ammo depot, used for the destruction of elderly ammo, contained over 150,000 shells and about half of them blew up after someone apparently tossed a lit cigarette into the dry vegetation and started a large bushfire. The 2018 accident began when someone was illegally clearing dry grass with a fire that got out of control and spread to the ammo depot.

The 2011 accident caused about 30,000 civilians to be evacuated and nearly a hundred were injured by shell fragments or fire. After the 2011 accident the base was repaired and destruction of the remaining elderly (and dangerous to move) ammo continued, often via controlled explosions that the local civilians heard regularly. When they hear (or see) this stuff going off at night they know it is an uncontrolled explosion and depending on how close they are to the explosions, or intact ammo warehouses, it is time to run for cover.

While two accidents like this in one place are rare, these ammo storage site fires and massive explosions were inevitable after the Russian armed forces shrank to a fifth the size they were when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. At that time the Soviet Union stockpiled ammo, mainly artillery shells and rockets sufficient to supply a much larger army. By the end of the 1990s, when it was clear that the army was not going to get much larger than about a million personnel while the ammo depots were still holding enough ammo for a military five times as large. To make matters worse a lot of old ammo is still considered “in service” and issued to troops.

The hundreds of large ammo depots have fewer troops and civilian employees to guard and monitor them. For example, in mid-2013 there was an ammo explosion in Central Russia (near the city of Chapayevsk). 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, thrown (some for over a kilometer) clear were collected for disposal. The damage cost the military over $5 million. Once more it was Cold War era ammo that had not been destroyed yet and was growing more unstable with each passing year.

Disasters like this still occur in Russia, largely because as recently as 2012 there was still over six million tons of ammunition in storage, a growing portion of it obsolete or too old to safely use. There are two things Russia can do with this stuff; leave it in place and risk fires and explosions, or safely dispose of it. Between 2012 and 2020 nearly 40 percent of that old ammo has been taken care of in places like Kamenka, where the latest accident took place. Getting rid of this stuff is expensive and the government has not allocated enough money to get it done quickly. Russia does not like to publicize this problem and is seeking to get the ancient ammo disposed of as quickly and quietly as possible. The older this ammo gets the less likely it is to remain quiet.

These explosions are also 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 as soon as in the West but kept around in case of a national emergency. Communist countries were poor. It made sense to keep those old mortar and artillery shells (plus rockets, 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 less powerful, largely useless or, in many cases, unstable and very dangerous.

Because not enough money was spent to properly take care of what is held in storage the workforce was often untrained and careless. Part of this problem arises from the army use of conscripts doing one year of service, or minimum-wage civilians, to take care of these ammo storage sites. One accident was traced to a soldier who carelessly tossed aside a lit cigarette, which led to a disastrous fire and explosions.

There are still problems with older munitions in use by troops. The aging munitions not only became more unstable but also very dangerous just to move. Russia had more of a problem with this than China, which could afford to dispose of older munitions and had much less elderly ammo stored away. This sort of thing has been the cause of many spontaneous explosions on Russian ships as well as in ammunition depots, even before the Cold War ended in 1991. These accidents also happen while efforts to safely dispose of it are underway.

Most East European nations that lost their Russian imposed communist governments in 1989 wanted no more of doing things “the Russian way.” But getting rid of that legacy was not easy. 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 Islamic terrorist explosives so dangerous.

Since the 1990s there were more explosions worldwide that involved elderly Russian or Chinese made ammo that 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 after colonial rulers left in the 1960s. A lot of this ammo 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 even fewer since 2014. Until about 2010 there was usually one big explosion somewhere, and 10-20 smaller ones, each year. Since then there are still some small ones each year, but far fewer of the big ones. 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.

Africa has been the scene of many of these explosions, largely because of the climate (often hot and damp) and the laxest safety standards. Another problem in Africa is that ammo storage facilities are often in urban areas. There tends to be hundreds of civilian deaths when one of these urban ammo depots catches fire and explodes. 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.

Even recently manufactured ammo can accidentally detonate if not stored or handled properly. You cannot be too careful about 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. But the stuff seemed OK and it seemed a shame to just throw it away.

Oh, that brings up another issue; the once popular practice of dumping old ammo at sea. This was widely practiced at the end of World War II and even included chemical weapons. What was not realized that a lot that dumped stuff retained its lethality for many decades. This became clear when fishing boats or those surveying the ocean bottom discovered, often with explosive effects, that the old ammo was still a danger. The chemical weapons announced their continued presence and lethality by leaking into fishing waters and ending up in fish and the fish ended up caught, cooked and consumed.




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