Some 249 250kg aircraft bombs in store at Jankempdorp are showing signs of crystalisation. The Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans says the bombs are unsafe for use but remains safe for storage, handling and transportation and pose no threat to any lives or infrastructure. It can also still be safely destroyed by qualified South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
The ministry, in answer to a Parliamentary question, last month said the bombs where manufactured in 1978 and 1979. Aging ammunition is an increasing problem for the SANDF. By 2008, it had holdings of at least 78 000 metric tons of obsolete, unserviceable or redundant munitions. The SANDF have three large ammunition depots: that at Jankempdorp and two others at De Aar and Naboomspruit.
All the ammunition at Jankempdorp is obsolete, unserviceable or redundant, the ministry continued. Although neither the answer to the latest question nor an earlier question quantified the amount of ammunition in storage at Jankempdorp – or it total – the August question noted field disposal would take some 20 years.
A further issue at Jankempdorp is encroachment by an informal settlement (shanty town), now some 540 from the closest magazine. Answering the latest question, posed by Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter, the ministry said concern about this was “justified” as the invasion of the safety zone around the dump poses a risk to those who settle there. To protect them storage in the nine magazines have been curtailed. Two magazines, rated for a blast of 200 000kg have been scaled back to 15 000kg, one magazine rated for 20 000 kg has been reduced to 15 000 kg and the remaining six were reduced by 1000kg each.
In August the ministry said all critically unsafe ammunition had been destroyed by means of controlled detonation on a licensed demolition area and field storage had been discontinued. “All the ammunition is safely stored in specifically designed and licensed ammunition storage facilities.”
Furthermore, all ammunition “is inspected on a regular basis by ammunition specialists to ensure that the ammunition is safe for storage, transport and handling. If ammunition is deemed to become unsafe, it is destroyed immediately by specialists.”
Lastly, “ammunition storage facilities are inspected regularly and the licences of these facilities are adjusted accordingly. This has the implication that possible threats be eliminated as the quantities of ammunition to be stored in a storage facility are adjusted to adhere to the prescribed safety distances.”
Lightning conductors are also being kept in good repair. “Previously they were not inspected annually but this has been rectified by the SANDF,” th ministry said in its December response. “During 2010 a quantity of 788 lightning conductors were inspected at the depot “and 132 were found to be of critical non-conformity.” All 132 lightning conductors were repaired and issued with a conformity certificate. “There are no outstanding inspections this year and the next inspection will be conducted during September 2011 as required by national legislation.”
One defect noted was that nine roofs were leaking “and as DPW [the Department of Public Works] does not currently have the capability to repair these roofs, the SANDF is investigating the possibility to repair these roofs though the works regiment.”
The ministry in October said the Department of Defence is still mulling an ammunition demilitarisation plant (ADP). In a written answer in the National Council of Provinces to a question asked by African National Congress Northern Cape delegate CJ de Beer, the ministry said officials were studying the question. It gave a similar answer to a question asked of her by Democratic Alliance Member of Parliament James Lorimer in November 2009. Then it said the plans were at a “pre-feasibility” stage, despite being in the works since at least 1996.
The ministry avered “the building of the demolition plant is a project that is currently being undertaken through a feasibility study; depending on the outcome of the feasibility studies the best mechanism to dispose of ammunition will be determined i.e. a fixed plant or mobile satellite facilities or what the study will determine it to be.”
In 2009 the ministry said the department had “had discussions with a number of companies that have ammunition disposal capacity, including Denel and Nammo AS.” In November 2008, the then-Portfolio Committee on Defence expressed its displeasure at the lack of progress in establishing the facility. The Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) reported then-committee acting chairman Gerhard Koornhof was annoyed at being told the facility would likely only be in place “in 2010”. He said that the committee had visited the De Aar dump in 2006 and had been told at the time that the need for the facility was critical. Other MPs had visited in October 2004 and tabled a report to the committee in March 2005. This recorded that 90% of the SANDF’s ammunition holding was then already older than 20 years. The guaranteed shelf life for shells and pyrotechnics are 10 years and for small arms ammunition 20 years. South African National Defence Force Chief of Logistics Major General Justice Nkonyane then said contractual issues surrounding the plant were being discussed with a construction company.
Industry sources say Denel conducted a feasibility study into an ADP in 1996, leading to an Armscor Request for Proposal in September 2003. A company called SANABO DEMIL (Pty) Ltd was reportedly formed in 2004 with SAAB of Sweden and NAMMO of Norway each holding 30% and black-empowerment partner Autumn Star Trading owning the remaining 40%. A framework agreement between the DoD and SANABO was signed in early 2005, leading to a contract in late 2006. By November last year, the necessary permit had been obtained. Ironically, the sources aver, the shareholders had by then decided to throw in the towel and wind up SANABO after being unable to meet DoD officials since late 2008 to finalise a number of details.
The sources add it would have taken two years to build the plant. The 2005 report by MPs noted that the open burning and open detonation of ammunition as well as the existing incinerator used at De Aar “were environmentally unfriendly, labour intensive, expensive and a danger, not only to the personnel, who are not trained disposal professionals, but also the neighbouring community.”
It would take 34 years for the DoD to destroy its unserviceable ammunition in that manner. An ammunition disposal plant, by contrast, could address the backlog in seven to eight years. “The plant could also be used by other countries in the region and this could assist in controlling the proliferation of small arms, including explosives.”
The plant would have safely dismantled the ammunition under strict supervision. During this process recyclable material is recovered while other remnants are incinerated. Small arms ammunition is typically incinerated as whole units as it is not economically feasible to dismantle.