Singapore's Self-Propelled Howitzer at New Zealand

Mindef avoids mentioning shell explosion in 155mm howitzer 22 years ago resulting in 14 casualties

MINDEF issued a media release on Wed (30 Jan) defending its safety record for its 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH) as well as its standard operating procedures required to operate the howitzer.

It stated that in the last 15 years of operating the howitzer, 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,” it said.

MINDEF’s statement came after what had happened to CFC Aloysius Pang, who was injured while doing maintenance work on the SSPH during his reservist training at the Waiouru Training Area in New Zealand. He later succumbed to his injuries and passed away in New Zealand last month (Jan).

“The well-being of servicemen is MINDEF’s and the SAF’s topmost priority,” MINDEF added. “The SAF is committed to strengthening the safety culture on the ground.”

MINDEF limits its talk of operation safety of its 155mm howitzers to only 15 years

It is interesting to note that in MINDEF’s public statement, it only talked about the last 15 years of operating the SSPH free of incidents, including the firing of the weapon.

An SSPH is essentially a 155mm gun mounted on a motorized tracked chassis. In this way, the gun can easily be moved from one position to another. But the firing still involves the traditional artillery rounds shooting out of the barrel of the gun and arcing towards the target.

A search on the Internet has revealed that this is not the first time a national serviceman has died during artillery trainings at Waiouru. Twenty-two years ago in 1997, a 155mm artillery round actually exploded in the barrel of a FH2000 gun howitzer, resulting in 14 casualties during a training exercise at Waiouru.

The FH2000 may not have a motorized tracked chassis but it is still a 155mm howitzer nonetheless.

In that incident, 2 NSFs, 3SG Ronnie Tan Han Chong and LCP Low Yin Tit died while 12 other servicemen were also injured when a 155mm artillery shell exploded prematurely inside the barrel of a gun howitzer.

During the Commission of Inquiry (COI), it concluded that the most probable cause was a defective fuze that was attached to the 155mm shell. The defective fuze had resulted in the premature explosion.

Fuzes came from a Chinese factory

After the incident, the batch of fuzes from which the defective fuze came was X-rayed and 1.3% of the fuzes were found to be defective. This defective batch of fuzes was supplied by the Chartered Ammunition Industries (now organized under ST Kinetics which is a subsidiary of ST Engineering).

It was later found out that Chartered Ammunition Industries (CAI) had contracted with a U.S. company, Island Ordnance Systems (IOS), for the supply of these fuzes and that IOS itself obtained the fuzes from another company, Xian Dong Fang Machinery Factory, in China.

However, CAI did not inform MINDEF that the fuzes came from China. MINDEF only became aware that these fuzes were manufactured in China during the COI proceedings. At the time, Tony Tan was the Defence Minister.

MINDEF had engaged CAI to provide SAF with the fuzes. In particular, CAI agreed to witness the product acceptance tests for the fuzes, on behalf of MINDEF. However, CAI did not witness all the acceptance tests. CAI also did not check whether Xian Dong Fang was able to manufacture the fuzes according to the required military specifications.

After the COI, MINDEF said it would revamp the product acceptance process and stop buying any ammunition and fuzes from IOS or Xian Dong Fang.

MINDEF also nominated various servicemen for appropriate awards in recognition of their “acts of bravery and professionalism” demonstrated during the incident.

It’s not known if there would be any more casualties at Waiouru or involving howitzers in future – an unavoidable risk that has to be undertaken by any Singaporean sons serving his nation to protect the 5 over million population residing here.