For the Indian Air Force, the Augusta Westland controversy could not have come at a more inopportune time.
Its has plans to induct 300-350 aircraft, including combat jets, transport aircraft and helicopters over the next decade. But the scandal that has erupted around supply of 12 VVIP helicopters is likely to cast a shadow on its plans, at least in the short run.
This is for the first time an Air Chief's name has cropped up in scam of any kind. Whether former chief Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi has received the bribe mentioned in the Italian prosecutors report will have to be proved after a thorough investigation both in Italy and India. In absence of any concrete proof I would like to withhold any judgement although ACM Tyagi has himself demanded a speedy probe and denied any wrong doing.
The controversy has however stunned the air force fraternity.
Former Air Chief Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, speaking to me from Pune this afternoon said as much. He pointed out that the Air Force has never been involved in any scam before. "I think all the IAF deals are very transparent. All procurement is signed through ministry of defence, finance etc," he pointed out.
Although the defence ministry has not yet made it clear if the Rs 3750 crore deal with the Augusta Westland company will be scrapped or the deliveries of the remaining nine helicopters will be delayed indefinitely, ACM Naik was clear that any delay will be costly in terms of operational requirements.
"The helicopters should come to the air force as soon as possible. The IAF really needs it. The deal should not be delayed, according to me," he said. The probe can go on, he added.
Later talking to different sources in the government, I have tried to piece together the entire sequence of events in this long drawn out contract process. This is what I have managed to learn so far. There could be gaps in information though.
2000: Aware that Mi-8 VVIP helicopter fleet had only 10 years to go before being phased out, IAF suggests to the PMO and to the MoD that there is a need to look for suitable and modern replacement. The MI-8s are typical Russian product: sturdy, dependable but with very little comfort level to offer.
(Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis was the Air Chief then)
A request for proposal (RFP) is floated. Six companies respond. One of the key requirements in that RFP was the competing helicopters must be able to fly at altitudes around 6,000 metres with full load.
After trials, only one helicopter, Eurocopter's EC 225 was able to fly at that altitude.
In 2003, the IAF sent its evaluation report to the PMO. Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser (NSA) and Principal Secy to Atal Behari Vajpayee, asked the Special Protection (SPG) that guards the VVIPs for its comments. The SPG apparently said the EC-225 was not suitable because its cabin height was too short (at 1.39 metres) and that neither the VIPs nor the SPG personnel would be able to stand upright inside such a short cabin.
Mishra then wrote to ACM S. Krishnaswamy who had taken over from Tipnis in 2001 expressing concern on two points: A single vendor situation had arisen because of the specification that said the helicopters must be able to fly at altitudes around 6,000 m and that SPG's inputs were not taken. Having seen that letter briefly, I remember a couple of lines. It said, in parts: "It is unfortunate that SPG wasn't taken on board... I suggest you and the defence secretary work out the specifications in consultation with the SPG..." Mishra's point was the competition must be broadened and SPG's requirements must be met
So the Air Force in consultation with the SPG drew up the entire Air Staff Qualitative Requirement (ASQR) once again. That was in 2003 itself. The new specifications said the helicopters must be able to fly at an altitude of 4,500 metres and that its cabin must be at least 1.80 m in height.
Meanwhile, Air Marshal Tyagi took over as Air Chief in 2004. Hoever, it took the Air HQ and MoD's acquisition wing another three years to issue a fresh RFP. That was in 2006.
The NDA government had been ousted. UPA was in power. The new RFP which went by the specifications finalised in 2003 was issued to six different vendors when Pranab Mukherjee was the Defence Minister.
Three companies--makers of Mi-172, Sikorsky which made the S-92 helicopters and Augusta Westland's AWA101-- responded to the RFP.
Meanwhile the MoD had put in place a new concept--the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP)--which lays down stringent rules and regulations. Under the DPP all companies that bid for contracts above 100 crore rupees have to sign an integrity pact which binds the companies to give an undertaking that no bribes would be paid or agents would be used in the contracts.
The Russian company that makes Mi-172 withdrew from the competition at an early stage refusing to sign the integrity contract!
That left Auguta Westland and Sikorsky in the race. By now this was late 2007.
Fali H. Major, himself an ace helicopter pilot had meanwhile taken over as the Ar Chief after ACM Tyagi superannuated in 2007.
The evaluations and trials of S-92 and AW101 began ad continued over the next couple of years (2008-09). According to Air Force sources S-92 was found to be non-compliant on 4 counts:
1. It could not reach 15000 feet without maximum power
2. Its 'hover out off ground effect' wasn't sufficient
3. Its drift down altitude was not meeting the requiremt
4. Missile airborne warning system wasn't up to the mark
Augusta Westland with its three engines was a bonus, according Air Force test pilots since one engine failure still meant it had two to fall back upon.
Some time in 2009, Air HQ sent its recommendation to the Defence Ministry and after all going through the stringent financial and technical requirements mandatory under the DPP, a contract was signed in February 2010.
By this time, ACM Naik was the Air Chief.
The first of the AW 101 arrived in India in late 2012. Two more followed in quick succession.
Even before the deliveries had started, reports had begun appearing in Indian media about some underhand dealing.
Early this week the manure hit the fan and by now every one is an expert on who has got what and how much money has changed hands.
Politics has also begun on the matter.
Over the next few days, the controversy will remain in the headlines.
Then we will discover some thing new to outrage over and move on.
Whether or not a former Air Chief received a kickback will remain a matter of investigation.
One is just hoping that this episode (and the last word is yet to be heard on this) will not further slow down India's overall defence acquisition process