In the ongoing investigation of bribery and corruption in the VVIP helicopter deal, the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, appears to have made up its mind that the then Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, was instrumental in swinging the deal in favour of AgustaWestland.
News reports attributed to CBI sources imply that technical requirements were tweaked by the then air chief to enable the Italian helicopter AW101 to emerge as the winner in the contested deal.
As was to be expected, the Indian media, especially electronic - went hoarse in the throat and wild in gestures - and continues to do so - to expose the erstwhile chief without bothering to look at the whole episode in a holistic and professional manner. Whether guilty or not, in the eyes of the nation, he is already damned.
There are two major aspects of the 'deal' which need to be probed thoroughly before arriving at any conclusion. One, whether the erstwhile chief could and/or did influence the laying down of the SQRs (Service Qualifying Requirements) to enable the selection of any particular helicopter. And, two, whether there was a case of illegal transaction of money favouring some middlemen and individuals who claimed to have the wherewithal to swing the deal in a particular direction.
Allegations have indeed emerged in Italy that Italian/ European businessmen raised bribe money and paid it to top officials of Finmeccanica, the company which owns the British AgustaWestland, and some Indian businessmen. A probe is on in Europe based on communication intercepts and accounting paperwork the middlemen had prepared for their own requirements.
Soon after the scandal broke out, the Indian Ministry of Defence (MOD) issued a Fact Sheet on February 14, 2013 on the chronology of the important procedural milestones of the deal. The MOD deserves credit for not hiding behind the facade of secrecy and putting the facts in public domain, but where it failed was to assure the people that its defence procurement systems are robust enough not to be influenced by any one individual irrespective of the rank or status he may wield.
In the midst of all the cacophonous accusations hitting the ceiling was just a lone voice of sanity, that of former defence and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, when he remarked:, "We should not make wild allegations against a former air chief. It is not in the interest of both the Air Force and the country. The probe is on. Let's wait."
A distinguished soldier and an able statesman, he understood well the destruction such media hype can cause to the very fabric of the armed forces.Nonetheless, due to the media trial, MOD referred the case to CBI, the country's prime investigating agency.
At this stage, it would perhaps be prudent to chronologically look at the various events as revealed by the MOD fact sheet which finally led to the selection of the AW101 as the helicopter of choice for induction into the IAF. It reveals that an acquisition process for VVIP helicopters commenced in March 2002 and culminated in the EC-225 of M/S Eurocopter being found the sole helicopter suitable for acquisition, after flight evaluation of the three out of the four vendors who had responded to the RFP.
At that time, the EH-101 (or AW101) of AgustaWestland, or any other VIP helicopter (barring the EC-225), was not certified for an altitude of 6,000 meters.
In November 2003, the then National Security Advisor (NSA) and the principal secretary to the prime minister convened a meeting voicing concern that the mandatory requirements stipulated by the IAF had resulted in a single vendor situation. It was also noted that the prime minister and president have rarely made visits to places located beyond 4,500 meter altitude.
The meeting decided to modify the mandatory altitude requirement to 4.5 km whilst leaving the 6 km altitude to be desirable. Security officials from the Special Protection Group (SPG) that guards the VVIPs asked for a minimum cabin height of 1.8 metre to facilitate rescue movement in case of an emergency. Notably, police and intelligence officials protecting the VVIPs are generally tall. SPG is controlled by the PMO (Prime Minister's Office).
In the words of the MOD, "In pursuance of the above directive, the ORs (Operational Requirements) were deliberated at length between the NSA, SPG/PMO, MOD and the IAF between March, 2005 and September, 2006 and the above-mentioned changes were incorporated."
In addition, after further deliberations between the aforesaid agencies the quantity of helicopters proposed for procurement was revised from 8 to 12 by adding 4 helicopters in non-VIP configuration for security reasons. IAF's VIP Squadron has had 8 helicopters generally.
It seems clear that the newly introduced cabin height parameter of 1.8 metre becoming a mandatory requirement could have played a major role forcing Eurocopter to leave the scene without responding to the new RFP issued on September 27, 2006.
While chronicling the various steps till the conclusion of contract awarded to AgustaWestland on January 18, 2010, the MOD insists that the procurement case was progressed in accordance with established procurement procedure with all stages of procurement being followed meticulously, it is silent on whether the entire SQR process was revisited as per the procurement procedure.
It is obvious that critics have homed on to this lack of information to base their speculations that the process was misused by someone to select a 'favoured' vendor. The media, and the CBI, seem to have lost no time in latching on to the erstwhile chief, during whose tenure the revised RFP was issued, to be the man responsible for tweaking the SQRs/ORs for pecuniary gains.
But, without overly commenting on the cumbersomeness of the defence procurement procedure, what stands out clearly is that no single individual can influence the outcome of a defence deal on his/her own.
India Strategic has had some access to the documents showing how the new SQRs were debated in a final meeting, held before the issuance of the revised RFP. It is clear that all the new parameters were agreed to unanimously - one by one - by the representatives of all the agencies mentioned earlier, and that while IAF was represented by top officers at this meeting, the air chief himself was not there.
Simply put, the decision was collective, unanimous, and signed by each participant in agreement.
The new parameters included the minimum cabin height of 1.8 metre (propagated by the SPG for security reasons), a drift-down down altitude with one engine inoperative of not less than 1,500 metres (for reasons of VVIP safety) and, of course the earlier agreed to lower service ceiling of 4,500 meters, among others.
After the Field Evaluation Trials that followed, the Staff Evaluation Report concluded that only AW101 helicopter was fully compliant with all SQRs based on which, AgustaWestland was finally awarded the contract to supply 12 (8 VVIP-configured and 4 non-VVIP) AW101 helicopters to the IAF at a negotiated price of Euro 556.262 million.
It may also be kept in mind that similar trials in the US also had led to the selection of AW 101 just around then.
Now that a bribery scandal connected with the deal has broken out, everyone seems to be baying for the blood of a lone individual, as also for outright cancellation of the VVIP helicopter deal. In the opinion of the writer, it is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction on both counts.
As brought out in the March Edition of India Strategic, it would be foolhardy to cancel the entire contract at this advanced stage of execution. The quality of the helicopter should be kept in mind which undoubtedly crowns it to be the top-notch helicopter in the world for VVIP travel.
And, while all possible penalties should be levied on the errant company as per the provisions of the contract, blacklisting of the companies, as India has been doing, will prove to be counter-productive to the much-needed, ongoing and massive modernisation programmes of the armed forces.
Similarly, singling out one particular individual for the entire selection process could prove to be counter-productive.
The investigating agencies need to do the right thing by getting to the bottom of the case and bring to book anyone and everyone involved, but not on the basis of knee-jerk reactions and media trials.
The investigation should not end up by destroying the reputation and morale of only the services and servicemen, while the real arms agents move on to the next deal and the real perpetrators and hidden beneficiaries continue to flourish as usual.
(26.04.2013 - Air Marshal (retd) Jimmy Bhatia, a former head of the IAF's Western Command, is managing editor of India Strategic defence magazine. The views expressed are personal and not of IANS. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)