Defence minister A K Antony has finally bitten the bullet. With the CBI deciding to close the infamous seven-year-old Barak kickbacks case for lack of evidence, the defence ministry on Monday cleared the long-pending “critical” naval procurement of an additional 262 Israeli Barak-I missiles for Rs 880 crore.
The Antony-led Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) also gave the green signal for two other delayed naval projects for 16 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) warships capable of operating in “shallow waters” for Rs 13,440 crore and two diving support vessels meant for rescuing sailors from disabled submarines for Rs 1,500 crore. The Rs 300 crore purchase of 41 Dhruv advanced helicopters, manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), was also cleared in the meeting.
“While a global tender will now be floated for the diving support vessels or DSRVs (deep-submergence rescue vessels), the ASW boats will be built in India with some foreign collaboration for torpedoes etc. The ASW boats, with a displacement below 1,000 tonne, are crucial to track and kill enemy submarines near our coast or ports,” said a source.
Both these projects have been hanging fire for long. The proposal for two DSRV-like “mini submarines” — which ‘mate’ with disabled submarines underwater to rescue trapped sailors from depths up to 610 metres — for instance has been stuck for over 15 years.
But it was the go-ahead to the Barak-I missiles, which will now require the final nod from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which caught the eyeballs. The Navy has for long been screaming about its fast-depleting stock of missiles to arm the Israeli Barak-I anti-missile defence (AMD) systems fitted on 14 frontline warships like aircraft carrier INS Viraat and the latest Shivalik-class stealth frigates.
But to no avail. Antony is known to stop any project at the first whiff of a scandal – 15 armament companies are currently blacklisted, while the CBI has registered 23 corruption cases in defence deals in just the last three years. And this was a full-blown CBI case registered in October 2006. It named former defence minister George Fernandes, his party associates Jaya Jaitely and R K Jain, alleged arms-dealer Suresh Nanda and former Navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar among the accused, apart from armament firms Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael.
But with CBI failing to find evidence of kickbacks in the original Rs 1,160 crore Barak-I deal inked by the NDA regime in October 2000, the DAC has now cleared the fresh case after consulting the law ministry and attorney general. The MoD had consistently refused to blacklist IAI and Rafael, holding it would be “counter-productive” to national security. Israel is the second-largest defence supplier to India, with sales worth around $1 billion every year. Of the several projects currently underway, IAI and DRDO are jointly developing a long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) system for Rs 2,606 crore to arm Indian warships and a medium-range SAM system for IAF at a cost of Rs 10,076 crore.
Both these systems, with an interception range of 70-km each, were to be ready long ago but have repeatedly missed deadlines. The naval LR-SAM, approved in December 2005, is now slated for completion by December 2015. The MR-SAM project, sanctioned in February 2009, in turn, has a “probable date of completion” by August 2016, say sources.