Cleaning up

The following article first appeared as a leader in Flight International 26 February 2013.

It was a question about helicopters that flustered Indian defence minister AK Antony at the recent Aero India show. A journalist asked about the interminable competition for 197 reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (RSH). “This is a question for the defence acquisition council,” said Antony brusquely. “The DAC will take a decision.” Next day, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne brushed the same question off. “This is up to the DAC,” he said, quickly moving to the next question. A source close to the contest said these comments about the DAC “mean nothing”; Antony chairs the DAC.

While the competition between Eurocopter’s

AS550 C3 Fennec and Russia’s Kamov KA-226T

remains in limbo, Indian pilots fly obsolete Cheetahs and Cheetaks.

RSH delays are old hat. What did make headlines the week after the show was news that Finmeccanica head Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini, his counterpart at AgustaWestland, had been arrested in Italy for alleged corruption relating to India’s order of 12 VIP-configured AgustaWestland AW101s. Orsi headed Finmeccanica’s helicopter unit at the time of the 2010 deal.

The RSH and AW101 scandals are separate, but both are emblematic of India’s murky, tortuous acquisition process. Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland adamantly deny any improprieties; still, only days after the arrests New Delhi said it would cancel the AW101 deal, even though Italian investigators have yet to substantiate the allegations, and New Delhi has received three AW101s, which fills an important requirement.

The need for the RSH is even more pressing. At New Delhi’s Defexpo show in 2012, Eurocopter chief Lutz Bertling could barely disguise his impatience with the RSH deal. His plea for a speedy resolution was ignored.

In fact, the AS550 C3 won a previous iteration of the $600 million requirement in 2006 – only to see this overturned in late 2007 after India’s Central Vigilance Commission agreed there were “irregularities” in the deal. Eurocopter insisted the competition had been pursued with the “utmost transparency and professionalism”.

The RSH and AW101 travesties are far from unique. Competitions for tankers, fighters and trainers have had their share of delays, controversies, and re-tenders.

Aside from endangering the lives of young pilots, old aircraft are expensive to maintain. Moreover, bungled acquisitions will compromise national security.

India’s leadership must make the hard choice to clean up defence acquisitions.

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