The Ministry of Defence defended its safety record with the 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH) in a press release on Wednesday. The statement comes after the training death of Corporal First Class (National Service) [CFC (NS)] Pang Wei Chong, Aloysius, last week.
CFC (NS) Pang, an armament technician, was undergoing their reservist training in the Waiouru training site in New Zealand and was carrying out repair works inside a self-propelled howitzer with his team when the gun barrel was lowered, crushing him. Despite the best efforts of medical professionals, Pang passed away.
The SSPH that Pang was repairing is essentially a 155mm gun that requires traditional artillery rounds that shoot out from the barrel of the gun towards the target. Commissioned by MINDEF in 2003, this type of SSPH is mounted on a motorised tracked chassis that allows it to move from one position to another more easily. MINDEF’s statement said:
“The SSPH is a 155mm, 39 calibre, tracked howitzer developed by ST Engineering Land Systems, and commissioned in 2003. In the last 15 years of SSPH operations, there has not been any reported injury of servicemen due to the gun lowering for maintenance or operating in or firing of the SSPH.
“Over the last 15 years, more than 1,000 servicemen, NSmen and regulars, have been trained to operate the SSPH and around 12,500 rounds fired.”
While it is true that there have been no reported injuries in the operations or firing of the SSPH howitzer for the last 15 years, there has been a major accident in the same training grounds 22 years ago involving an older 155mm howitzer.
In 1997, a 155mm artillery round prematurely exploded in the barrel of a FH2000 gun howitzer. Although the FH2000 does not have a motorised tracked chassis, like the one MINDEF uses now, it is still considered a howitzer.
In the accident, two full-time national servicemen (Third Sergeant Ronnie Tan Han Chong and Lance Corporal Low Yin Tit) lost their lives while 12 other servicemen were injured. The shell explosion occurred in the Waiouru grounds in New Zealand, like the latest accident.
A Committee of Inquiry (COI) that was convened after the 1997 found that while there was no human error by any member of the unit or any breach of SAF training safety regulations, the “most probable cause of the incident was a defective fuze” that led to the premature explosion.
The COI found that the defective fuze, which was attached to the 155mm shell that was loaded into the gun howitzer, came from a batch of fuzes that were manufactured in China. An X-ray of the fuzes showed that 1.3 per cent of the fuzes were defective.
MINDEF said that the batch of defective fuzes were supplied by the Chartered Ammunition Industries (CAI). CAI is now organised under ST Kinetics, which is a subsidiary of ST Engineering.
CAI asked a US-based company called Island Ordnance Systems (IOS) to supply the fuzes. MINDEF said that IOS obtained the fuzes from the Xian Dong Fang Machinery Factory in China, without the knowledge of CAI which though the fuzes were manufactured in the US.
Although CAI discovered that the fuzes were made in China instead of the US in 1994 – three years before the explosion in 1997 – it did not inform MINDEF of its discovery. MINDEF only came to know of the origin of the defective fuzes during the COI proceedings after the accident. In a press statement then, MINDEF said:
“MINDEF is responsible for ensuring that all types of ammunition and fuzes used in the SAF are safe. MINDEF does so by conducting acceptance testing of ammunition and fuzes either by itself or by reliable contractors.
“In this case, MINDEF had engaged CAI to provide the SAF with the fuzes. In particular, CAI agreed to witness the acceptance tests for the fuzes, on behalf of MINDEF. However, CAI did not witness all the acceptance tests. CAI also did not check whether the factory in the PRC was able to manufacture the fuzes according to the required military specifications.”
MINDEF promised to revamp the product acceptance process and stop buying any ammunition and fuzes from IOS or Xian Dong Fang in China, in the future. Read the Ministry’s press statement HERE.