With the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) rejecting most of the replies of Defence Minister A.K. Antony and the Indian Air Force in the Rs. 3726- crore VVIP AgustaWestland chopper deal, it would be left to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to hear them as they defend themselves and explain why acquisition was delayed and requirements were revised.
“As the acquisition process was inordinately delayed, the IAF continued to face operational disadvantage on account of use of ageing helicopters. A critical requirement of replacement of an ageing fleet of Mi-8 helicopters could not be fulfilled even after 13 years of initiation of the acquisition process due to the failure of the Ministry of Defence/IAF to devise realistic Service Qualitative Requirements (SQRs),” the CAG report on acquisition of helicopters for VVIPs, tabled in Parliament last week, concluded.
CBI on it
The deal for the supply of 12 choppers (AW 101) is now being probed by the CBI for possible kickbacks to middlemen, agents or other persons in both Italy and India.
The government auditor found no justification in the recommendation and assurance given by Chief of the Air Staff in October 2007 to conduct Field Evaluation Trials (FET) abroad for the shortlisted vendors instead of conducting trials at home.
“Evaluation of helicopters following different methodologies could not give the desired assurance, especially in the light of Defence Minister’s directives to provide equal opportunity to shortlisted vendors for field trials. FET was conducted abroad on the representative helicopters of AgustaWestland and not on the actual helicopter (AW-101) contracted. The contracted helicopter was still in its developmental phase, as stated by the vendor,” the CAG report said.
While AgustaWestland trial was held in the U.K.; Sikorsky chopper was tested in the U.S. in January-February 2008, the CAG report said. Then IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major, in a letter to the government in October 2007, said the evaluation team would consist of high-level IAF officers and experts in helicopter operations and would in no way compromise on any of the aspects in the field trials.
Antony poser cited
The report said Mr. Antony had questioned the rationale behind conducting FETs at vendor-specified locations instead of in India. “What is the guarantee that fidelity and credibility of these trials will remain above board when they do not take place within the country” he had asked.
Sources in the IAF said the former IAF chief also pointed out that Mi-8 helicopters were surviving on extended life, which would also expire in 2012 and it was not advisable to use them for VVIP commitments.
While rejecting the reply of the Defence Ministry as “unacceptable” on increasing the number of VVIP helicopters to be purchased from eight to 12, the CAG report said the Communication Squadron of the IAF was managing the service of air transportation for VVIPs with the fleet of eight Mi-8 helicopters till present. “As such, additional procurement of four helicopters costing Rs. 1240 crore was avoidable,” it said.
On the framing of SQRs, the report noted that despite directions from the Prime Minister’s Office to make them broad-based to increase competition, they were made more restrictive, which narrowed down the choices to limited range of helicopters being capable of meeting the requirements of the VVIP fleet.
On altering the cabin height of at least 1.8 metre, which was made a mandatory operational requirement and lowering the altitude requirement to 4500 metre, the report did not agree with the Defence Ministry’s reply.
The IAF sources said rarely did the President and the Prime Minister visited places that involved flying at an altitude beyond 4500 metres. Among 29 passes and 109 hill stations in the country, only four hill stations had an elevation of more than 6000 metres.
The report was prepared by Vinod Rai, whose term as CAG ended last May.