The Special Protection Group, the elite organisation responsible for the Prime Minister’s security, has warned that the failure to acquire state-of-the art transport helicopters could endanger the country’s highest officials, government sources told The Hindu .
New Delhi cancelled an order for the AgustaWestland AW101 helicopter on Wednesday citing payoffs.
“AgustaWestland should of course pay for wrongdoing,” a senior SPG official told The Hindu . “However, the Prime Minister’s safety shouldn’t be part of the price. We have communicated our concerns to the government.”
The Indian Air Force’s communications squadron, responsible for transporting the Prime Minister, the President and other top officials, currently uses the three-decades-old, Russian-made Mil Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters. The phasing out of the ageing helicopters from the IAF fleet is scheduled to begin this month; and though the Air Force has acquired new Mi17 helicopters, these are not yet certified for VVIP use.
It was also not immediately clear whether spares and services would continue to be sourced from AgustaWestland to keep the three AW101s already delivered in the air.
The SPG, an officer familiar with the selection process said, backed the AW101 based on a number of technical parameters. The helicopter, he said, scored over the competition on the weight of armour plating it could carry, space for stowing emergency medical equipment, the survivability of its seating and fuel tanks in a crash. “It also allowed for the concealed entry of the dignitary,” he said.
“Frankly,” the SPG official said, “there’s a disaster waiting to happen if we don’t find a replacement for the AW101.”
New Delhi has no plans to initiate a search for fresh helicopters, an official in the Ministry of Defence told The Hindu .
India has already replaced the IAF’s obsolescent fleet of fixed-wing VIP transport, notably the HS748 Avro. In 2003, New Delhi signed a Rs. 727-crore deal for five Embraer 135BJ Legacy jets. Later, in 2005, it signed a Rs. 937-crore contract for three Boeing business jets, with advanced electronic suites to guard against missiles.
Twists and turns
SPG officials played a key role in framing specifications for helicopter purchases from 2004 after the present Goa governor Bharat Vir Wanchoo took charge of the organisation for an unprecedented seven-year term, which ended in October 2011. The key technical head for the project was Indian Police Service officer A.K. Singh, who now serves as Additional Director-General of Police in Gujarat.
In August, the Comptroller and Auditor General revealed that the Defence Ministry had initially mandated that the helicopter have a service ceiling of 6,000 metres. However, the restriction was later waived, allowing the AW101, with a ceiling of 4,500 metres, to compete.
However, AgustaWestland’s India head, Jackie Callut, said in a statement that “the altitude requirement was an irrelevance to AgustaWestland anyway; it was well known the AW101 would have been recertified to 6,000 metres if needed.”
Neither Mr. Wanchoo nor Mr. Singh responded to The Hindu ’s requests for comment.
However, the former IAF chief, Satish Tyagi, who along with his relatives is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the case, earlier said the restriction was waived by Brajesh Mishra, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor. Mr. Mishra passed away in September 2012.
The AW101 is used by several air forces around the world to transport VVIPs. In 2005, an AW101 variant, designated as the VX70 Kestrel, co-manufactured by Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland won a contract to become the aircraft that ferries the United States President.
In 2009, though, the contract was cancelled after the unit cost of each helicopter doubled to over $400 million — more than that of the Boeing VC25 jets that carry the President. A 2011 report by the United States Government Accountability Office blamed the cost escalation on errors made by both the Lockheed Martin-AgustaWestland consortium, and the United States navy.
Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin are now reported to be close to sealing a contract for a new helicopter code-named the VXX, a custom-designed variant of Sikorsky S92 which lost out to the AW101.