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Updated: March 25, 2011 00:15 IST

How India blinked on U.S. inspections of PM's jet

Siddharth Varadarajan
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In this file photo Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks to journalists on board his special aircraft in 2009. Then NSA M.K. Narayanan is to his left. Leaked U.S. Embassy cables reveal that the government, after a long tug-of-war, agreed to American monitoring of Boeing VVIP aircraft that India had purchased.
PTI In this file photo Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks to journalists on board his special aircraft in 2009. Then NSA M.K. Narayanan is to his left. Leaked U.S. Embassy cables reveal that the government, after a long tug-of-war, agreed to American monitoring of Boeing VVIP aircraft that India had purchased.

Wary of political fallout, New Delhi asked Washington to stay quiet on shifting goalposts

Three years after issuing a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) on Boeing aircraft that India was buying for use by the Prime Minister and other VVIPs, the United States unilaterally foisted an amendment mandating intrusive annual end-use inspections of them by American personnel.

When the Cabinet Committee on Security approved the purchase plans in September 2005, it was on the basis of an LOA that did not require physical inspection of the highly sensitive aircraft. But in May 2008, the U.S. handed over to the Indian side a number of changes to the LOA, including a requirement for annual Enhanced End-use Monitoring inspections of the Large Aircraft Infrared Counter-Measures (LAIRCM) the planes come equipped with.

The LAIRCM is a self-protection suite that allows the pilot to take counter-measures if the aircraft comes under attack while in air.

According to a cable sent to Washington on May 5, 2008 from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, the Indian side strenuously objected to the American demands when they were first made. In a meeting with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Clad in May 2008, Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary Gaitri Kumar “raised Indian concerns over what it perceived was the ‘reopening' of the LOA for the Boeing VVIP aircraft India had agreed to purchase in 2005, specifically mentioning the ‘intrusive' end-use monitoring (EUM) agreement for the protection suite India was now being asked to sign as problematic. We don't mind if it is recast for some financial or technical thing,' she stated, ‘but to insert an EUM requirement retroactively and say if you don't agree we'll put it in storage, that would make our people flip'.” (152359: secret).

That India eventually agreed to American monitoring of the aircraft is already known, even if the details were never made public. But the Embassy cables give an unprecedented insight into the tug-of-war that followed the demand. The cables also reveal the “creative wording” the two sides used, in which India agreed to give U.S. inspectors annual physical access to the LAIRCM on the planes but the politically explosive term of “on-site inspection” was replaced by “on-site review.”

NSA’s appreciation

According to a cable sent on May 29, 2008 (155930: confidential), the amended LOA was initialled that day. In fact, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan expressed his “appreciation for the text's creative wording, such as using ‘joint consultation to include an on-site review' in lieu of ‘on-site inspection'”, because of “political sensitivities… over the principle of on-site inspections.”

The Indian side, however, remained wary of how the story would play out once it became clear that the government had allowed the U.S. to arbitrarily alter the terms of the aircraft deal. India made it clear on the day of the initialling that it wanted no public discussion of the fact that the goal posts had been moved. “Following [Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Mitchell] Shivers' expression of empathy for India's perception that the U.S. had added the EUM requirement after an initial LOA had been signed in 2005, Foreign Secretary [Shiv Shankar] Menon noted his appreciation but asked that there be no future reference to any ‘shifting of the goal posts,' rather that the entire deal had just been a continuum of discussions,” the cable, sent under the name of U.S. Ambassador David Mulford, recorded,

Other cables track the meetings Mr. Mulford had with Mr. Narayanan and Mr. Menon in the run up to May 29 in order to convince the Indian government to agree to that shift.

This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.