The ongoing VVIP helicopter contract scandal has sent the separate impending procurement of 197 light utility helicopters into a tailspin, with the Army now asking the government to conduct a fresh probe into the role played by a brigadier who allegedly demanded money from AgustaWestland to swing the latter deal as well.
Army chief General Bikram Singh told defence minister A K Antony that the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC), which met here on Tuesday, should keep the over Rs 3,000 crore project for the 197 helicopters on hold till the inquiry against the brigadier is completed to avoid any blowback later.
Though AgustaWestland no longer figures in the sweepstakes for the 197-helicopter project, where Russian Kamov Ka-226T and Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec choppers are locked in the final competition, the controversy has virtually pushed this critical acquisition into cold storage, as was earlier reported by TOI.
The name of the brigadier, V S Saini, had cropped up in the ongoing Italian probe into the bribery allegations in the Rs 3,546-crore contract for the 12 VVIP helicopters inked with AgustaWestland, the UK-based subsidiary of Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica, in February, 2010.
Brig Saini, now posted at the Officers’ Training Academy at Chennai, was the officer-in-charge of the field trials for the light helicopters as the “Brig-Aviation” at the Northern Command based in Udhampur.
A document seized by the Italian investigators, probing the 51 million euro bribes paid to swing the 556 million euro VVIP chopper contract in AgustaWestland’s favour, showed “Brig Saini” had demanded over $5 million to favour the company in the 197-helicopter deal as well.
The document found at the house in Italy of the mother of Guido Haschke, one of key middleman in the VVIP helicopter deal, mentions Brig Saini in January 2010 had offered “help to eliminate the competition” just before the field trials in the 197-helicopter project.
But as it later turned out, the AgustaWestland helicopter was ejected out of the race without any money apparently changing hands. The Army has questioned Brig Saini but is yet lay hands on “any tangible evidence” against him.
“The Army alone cannot investigate the charges…it will need cooperation from the Italian investigators,” said a senior officer. But with the Italian investigators yet to even share their evidence with India on the VVIP helicopter deal, the fate of the 197-helicopter project looks every uncertain now.
The procurement of 197 light choppers – to replace the ageing Cheetah/Chetak fleets that undertake patrol, reconnaissance and casualty evacuation missions in forward locations and high-altitude areas – has also been dogged by technical deviation complaints.
The DAC was to consider the report of the special technical oversight committee (STOC), headed by Lt-General Gurdeep Singh, but it has been pushed to the backburner now. Incidentally, the STOC report has cleared the “minor deviations” in the trials conducted between the twin-engine Kamov and single-engine Eurocopter, holding both met the operational requirements.
The entire 197-helicopter acquisition process has already been scrapped once in December 2007 after being finalized. Consequently, the armed forces continue to battle age and obsolescence when they urgently need as many as 440 new light-utility helicopters to replace the Cheetah/Chetak fleets.