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Tuesday, 27 October 1964
Page: 1317

Senator ANDERSON (New South Wales) (Minister for Customs and Excise) . - Senator McClelland recently asked questions about red-carded ammunition, and was given the information that out of £4 million worth of ammunition produced by the Department of Supply, some £500,000 of it was red-carded or marked " not for use ". Senator McClelland has referred to this ammunition as " defective ". I should point out and underline that redcarded does not necessarily mean that ammunition is defective; indeed, the procedure of red-carding ammunition in Army store is first and foremost a safety precaution for the men using it. If there is to be a proper understanding of the matters under debate, there must first of all be some appreciation of the nature and routine of ammunition production and testing.

In any kind of . mechanical production, some defects will appear and, perhaps, pass inspection. In mechanical production, it is possible to adjust these defects and put the item into service. But ammunition is a vastly different matter. I think all honorable senators agree with that statement. High explosive is necessarily an intricate chemical formula of great sensitivity and therefore, difficult to handle. When it is combined in the military store with intricate mechanical and electronic fuses and other items used in production, it is designed to be lethal to the enemy, but completely safe to the users and, therefore, the safety factor in testing must be enormously increased. Ammunition cannot be totally tested for obvious reasons. Resort is had therefore to proof firing of a small percentage of production, under conditions considerably more stringent than would be met with in actual service. In the case of 105 ammunition, two premature explosions occur, calling for the immediate marking as " not for issue " of earlier stocks which had passed inspection.

Honorable senators will appreciate that if a shell explodes on test, there is nothing left to investigate, and every minute process that goes into the production of shell must be rigidly examined in a search for a possible circumstance or set of circumstances which could produce premature explosion. In the case of the 105 ammunition, shell fillings were radiologically examined against the possibility that minor cracks and voids in filling were the cause of the explosion. This proved inconclusive when a third premature explosion occurred in a shell which had been X-rayed. The Department of Supply then selected a number of shells in every way comparable, but none could be induced to explode prematurely.

The Department of the Army and the Department of Supply then sent a top level technical mission to the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America to submit the problem of prematures to experts in those countries. The mission produced a lengthy report with a considerable number of suggestions for upgrading the specification of the shell. But it singularly failed to produce an identifiable reason for premature explosion. The mission established that the Australian shell was, in respect to its engineering and filling, equal in every way to those produced overseas. Without an identifiable cause for the difficulty, the Department of Supply has been obliged to conduct a long and painstaking examination of every facet of explosive production and shell filling, and to improve vastly every section of the process, even where that process is highly unlikely to be a contributor to the cause of premature explosion. As a consequence of this painstaking effort, the Department of the Army has rewritten an upgraded specification. Shells are now being produced to meet it, and production is continuing with deliveries to the Army. This leaves the question of red-carded ammunition.

If a defect from an unidentified cause arises in one shell, it is a matter of elementary prudence and safety that other shells using the same kind of explosives should also be taken out of service until the cause of the difficulty has been identified. This is what happened in the case of the 3.7-in. and 5.5-in. shells filled with the same explosive. As no cause of premature explosion has yet been established, it is impossible to say that these shells are defective. But, clearly in the interests of safety, they should be withheld from service until further technical investigation finally establishes the identifiable cause of premature explosions, or Army inspection is satisfied that they can be accepted. In the case of the 5.5-in. shell, which was produced to meet Army specifications at the time, these have been sample radiographed and are still under examination by Army experts, who, in the interest of safety, are understandably conservative. Until their examination is concluded, it is not possible to say what percentage if any will be rejected. Much the same applies to the 3.7-in. shell which has also been sample radiographed. This has indicated that they are considerably better than the 5.5-in. shell and, therefore, probably assured of a very high rate of acceptance when the investigation of the Army has been concluded. I should add that this information is supplied to me by the Minister for Supply (Mr. Fairhall).

Something has been said about these difficulties affecting the confidence of the armed services in their ammunition. But it must surely be clear to the Committee that the withdrawal from issue of stores, about which there is only a minor doubt, and the intensity of the effort which has gone into the search for the cause of the difficulty and into the production of a vastly improved shell, is the best evidence to the men of the Services that their complete safety in the use of these stores is the prime consideration of the Department of the Army, as the ordering authority, and the Department of Supply as the producing authority. To take the matter of so called defective ammunition further, i should point out that even after ammunition goes into Army store it is subject to periodic checks, some of it through proof firing. If there should be any deterioration through storage, this ammunition will be marked " defective " and returned for rectification.

Again, the techniques and the materials of munitions production do not stand still. When new techniques are available, the Army will write new specifications and ammunition, properly produced to an earlier specification and approved for acceptance, may well be marked " defective " and returned for re-processing for such rectification as is necessary to bring it up to the new specification. These processes and the cost of so called rectification are inseparable from ammunition production. Australia's experience in this regard is identical with that of overseas producing authorities even, it may be said, to the occurrence of occasional premature explosions.

The ammunition about which we have been talking is being produced in modern plant by experts whose competence is acknowledged around the world. The Department of Supply has approved such effort and provided such equipment as is necessary scientifically to investigate what is acknowledged by munitions production experts as a situation of extraordinary difficulty, and the costs of this inquiry and of re-processing if that should be necessary, must be accepted as the cost of providing advanced ammunition under conditions which completely safeguard the troops to whom the stores are issued.

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