The L85 mechanical fuses for the noses of 105mm shells were produced by an Italian company named in the recent bribes trial of Gordon Foxley, the Ministry of Defence official previously in charge of fuse procurement. The fuses can detonate on impact with raindrops during flight, and so can be fitted safely only to shells used for training in dry weather.
An MoD spokesman said that when a shell hits a raindrop it is 'like hitting a drop of concrete'. Most fuses are built to withstand the impact but not the L85, which he described as 'very sensitive'. In theory the shell could explode immediately after leaving the gun barrel. He refused to reveal if any soldiers had been injured or killed.
He said the fuse, first purchased four years ago, was being phased out. Existing stocks will be used for training. Two months ago, the MoD placed a four-year order with Royal Ordnance for its L106 fuse, which works in rain. Royal Ordnance will supply 30,000 fuses in the first year and 15,000 in subsequent years.
The L85 was manufactured by Fratelli Borletti, named last month in court as one of three foreign suppliers that won orders by bribing Foxley, who took pounds 1.5m in backhanders from the three firms in the early 1980s. He is due to be sentenced on Friday.
Union officials at Royal Ordnance in Blackburn, Lancashire, say his corruption cost 1,000 jobs at the factory.
In 1989, Royal Ordnance tendered to supply the Army with its L106 model but was forced to split the order with Borletti, after the Italian company made a lower bid. Steve Wallis, a Blackburn union official, said: 'We warned the MoD about the Borletti fuse. We were initially cheaper than Borletti but when the final bids were submitted Borletti were so much cheaper that they ended up being given a 50 per cent share - to supply a dodgy fuse.'
Last night, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, chairman of the cross-party Commons Defence Committee, said he would pursue the matter.
Richard Gadeselli, spokesman for Fiat, which bought the Borletti company in the mid-eighties, said he could not comment. He added that Borletti was winding down fuse operations.