Date: 22/04/2013

An Opinion Piece on:
The Westland Helicopter

The Central Bureau of Investigation has filed an FIR against a former IAF Chief and 12 others for alleged cheating, corruption and criminal conspiracy in the Rs. 3600-crore VVIP helicopter deal. The allegation being that during his tenure the IAF agreed to reduce the mandatory service ceiling of the helicopter from 6 Km to 4.5 Km to which it was earlier opposed. This allowed Augusta Westland to come into the fray as otherwise the company did not qualify to submit bids. The fact that no other official within the defence procurement system, either uniformed or civil, has been implicated implies that the air chief was able to single -handedly achieve this dubious feat. A study of the official Defence Procurement Procedure will kill this myth.

DPP 2002 was promulgated in December and then upgraded to DPP 2003 and later to DPP 2005. Two issues pertinent to this deal relate to a single vendor situation and changes to Services Staff Requirements (SQRs). Nowhere in the DPP is a single vendor situation cause for concern or cancellation but only care and caution and subject to approval by the Defence Minister. The SQRs are required to be formulated by the service head quarters through a broad based consultative process of defined specialists and then approved by a Staff Equipment Policy Committee (SPEC) representing these specializations. Any amendments after issue of ‘request for proposals’ need approval of the Defence Minister.

According to a MOD press release the genesis of the case is the IAF proposal in 1999 for replacement of Mi-8 VIP helicopters due to ‘severe operational constraints’ one of which was ‘inability to operate safely at places in elevation beyond 2000 meters’. In 2002 the process culminated in the selection of the Eurocopter. Further progress was interrupted when in November 2003 the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister called a meeting with the express concern that framing of mandatory requirements had led effectively to a single vendor situation. The meeting noted that PM and President have rarely made visits to places involving flying at an altitude beyond 4.5 Km meters and decided to reduce the mandatory requirement for service ceiling to 4.5 Km from 6 Km thus enabling helicopters earlier rejected to come into reckoning. As later events show, the IAF had operational reservations, although the MOD release is silent on this issue.

Interruption of the procurement process when it had reached a decisive stage in 2002 by an authority outside of the Defence Acquisition Council, under Defence Minister, was a violation of the DPP. As also was the arbitrary decision to reduce the service ceiling. The MOD failed to bring these facts to the notice of the meeting and became party to violating its own procurement procedures.

In December 2003, the PS to PM followed up with a letter to the then air chief, expressing concern that the PMO and SPG had not been consulted whilst formulating the requirements and suggesting that CAS and Defence Secretary may jointly review the matter to draw up realistic mandatory requirements.

According to MOD ‘in pursuance of this directive, the OR’s were deliberated at length between IAF, NSA, SPG/PMO and MOD between March, 2005 to September, 2006 and the above indicated changes were incorporated.’ Since it is during this period that the supposed criminal conspiracy has been committed by the concerned air chief, it is interesting to look into what actually transpired, because the devil truly lies in the details. For some reason, details of the next set of meetings have not featured in the MOD release and they have been taken from an electronic media website.

The matter was next discussed in a meeting in November 2004 under the Defence Secretary. The meeting was informed that Air HQ had reviewed reducing the mandatory requirement of 6 Km service ceiling to 4.5 Km and concluded that this was not feasible as with this change, altitude at which the helicopter would land would be substantially lower. PMO representative on the other hand repeated the earlier decision and it was decided that the PMO would give a list of requirements on the aspects relating to safety, security and comfort of VVIPs and also confirmation on the specific need for 6000 Km ceiling. That this meeting did not draw a clear distinction between operational requirements, which are solely within the professional domain of the IAF from ground safety, security and comfort issues that involve other agencies as well; resulted in a violation of the SQR formulation process.

In March 2005 the NSA chaired a meeting with the Defence Secretary, Deputy Chief of Air Staff and other security officials. On the crucial issues of SQRs the meeting agrees that since the purpose is to replace existing Mi-8 helicopters, the requirements should broadly conform to the parameters of the Mi-8. This is strange logic considering that the very operational basis for the IAF request for replacement helicopters was the severe operational altitude limitations of the Mi-8. In addition, what good is modernization if technology and performance enhancements are to be ignored? The meeting also agreed that a single vendor situation should be avoided and that the Defence Secretary with IAF, SPG and Secretary (Security) would draw up the operational specifications. Once again, the MOD failed to highlight that these interventions and decisions were in contravention of the DPP.

A meeting under DCAS then follows with external agencies including MOD, which deliberated on all aspects of the SQRs and diluted significantly the altitude requirements recording that this was done to avoid a single vendor situation. With this not only had the IAF buckled under persistent pressure from the PMO, NSA and MOD, but more significantly diluted the operational and flight safety requirements for VVIP flights. A lapse that may haunt the IAF in the years to come. The single vendor excuse appears a mere fig leaf!

The claim by MOD that the case followed the procurement procedure is not borne out by facts. The MOD had every right to process the case of the Eurocopter for CCS approval in 2002 justifying the single vendor situation. Instead they were led on a leash by agencies outside of the MOD, in the bargain subverting the entire DPP. Whether this was by design or default is for investigators to judge, but to let the then air chief hang out to dry all alone and pretend innocence of others does the reputation of the MOD little good. It also casts a shadow on the professional integrity of the Air Force for not standing up for what is correct.

There is now enough information in the public domain to question the MOD contention that ‘the procurement case was, thus, progressed in accordance with the established procurement procedure in a transparent manner with all stages of procurement being followed meticulously.’ This statement does not even pass media scrutiny, let alone a legal one. Here are some questions answers to which the CBI could have obtained in its backyard before dashing off overseas or jumping to hasty conclusions.

Why did agencies outside of the MOD (PMO, NSA & SPG) take such keen interest in this procurement when it should have been allowed to follow a formal procurement procedure under the Defence Acquisition Council chaired by the Defence Minister? Why did the MOD become party to this interference rather than oppose it? Why did the Defence Minister not step in to protect the sanctity of the DPP and his turf? What change in operational scenarios involved the DCAS in accepting dilution of altitude parameters in a meeting in violation of DPP norms? If, single vendor was the only concern, why did the IAF and MOD not seek Defence Minister’s approval as is permitted? Since a fresh request for proposals would amount to a fresh case, why was the change in SQRs not taken through the full process as per the DPP? As events unfold, no doubt there will be many other questions!

In the infamous Bofor’s case, it was alleged that the gun was fully compliant with army requirements, but bribes were paid. We have now descended to bribes being paid to dilute operational requirements. The biggest tragedy flowing from this episode is that our defence procurement system has now been mauled so badly that even our fighting capability is up for sale. National security is now in deep peril.