The Agusta Westland helicopter purchase had its supporters in both the A.B. Vajpayee as well as the Manmohan Singh governments. However, the coming to office of Narendra Modi in 2014 altered the situation. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has ordered a comprehensive probe into the transaction that is expected to go into the entire timeline of the decision.

Regarding NDA I, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), in its report on “Acquisition of helicopters for VVIPs”, tabled in Parliament in August 2013, stated that the government of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Vajpayee ignored the original choice of the Air Force, which was Eurocopter 225, and first brought up the clause of a specific cabin height as a result of which the helicopter of Agusta Westland remained the only choice for the purchase. The report was countersigned by the former CAG, Vinod Rai.

However, Manohar Parrikar explained in the Rajya Sabha this week that by making the height change “mandatory” in 2005, instead of “desirable”, UPA eliminated Agusta’s competitors: “The PMO, in December 2003…observed that the framing of mandatory ORs has effectively led to acquisition into a single-vendor situation. It was inter alia considered to make the operational altitude of 4,500 metres as mandatory and a higher flying ceiling of 6,000 metres and a cabin height of 1.8 metre as desirable operational requirement… The cabin height of 1.8 metres was made mandatory in the revised Service Quality Requirements (in May 2005)…”

The process for buying the helicopters began in June 2003, after the Air Force selected the Eurocopter 225 helicopter and sent a flight evaluation report to the Ministry of Defence in May 2003 for approval of purchase. According to the CAG report, the initial tender issued by the MoD in August 1999 for the replacement of the existing Mi-8 helicopters had stipulated a mandatory altitude requirement of 6,000 metres due to which the EH-101 helicopter (later renamed as AW-101) of Agusta Westland was not even considered as it could fly up to an altitude of 4,572 metres only. For this tender, only four vendors responded and three helicopters, namely, Mi-172, EC-225 and EH-101 were recommended by the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) for flight evaluation. Of the three, only Mi-172 and EC-225 were evaluated in view of the vendor stating that the helicopter could fly up to an altitude of 4,572 metres (15,000 feet) as against the mandatory requirement of 6,000 metres. Thereafter, the Air HQ selected EC-225 helicopter after having conducted the flight evaluation in November-December 2002 and the flight evaluation report was sent to the MoD in May 2003 for approval.

However, immediately after the evaluation report was sent, in June 2003, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power, the issue of the “cabin height” was first raised after the Technical Manager (Air) in MoD asked the Air HQ to reassess the EC-225 and also asked it to obtain the views of PMO with regard to the suitability of cabin height.

Following this, a meeting was convened on 19 November 2003 by the PMO, which had the representatives of MoD, Air HQ and Special Protection Group (SPG), during which the PMO observed that the framing of mandatory requirements had effectively led to a single vendor situation and opined that the PMO should have been consulted in this matter at the earlier stages.

The CAG report says:

“In a meeting convened (19 November 2003) by the PMO, with representatives of MoD, Air HQ and Special Protection Group (SPG), PMO observed that framing of mandatory requirements had effectively led to a single vendor situation and this problem would not have arisen if the PMO had been consulted at the earlier stages. In the meeting, following options were also considered.

“—while the mandatory requirement for operational altitude be 4500 metre, the higher flying ceiling limit of 6000 metre and a cabin height of 1.8 metre could be made desirable ORs; and

“—the PMO/ SPG could be associated with the framing of parameters from the standpoint of VVIP convenience and security. The possibility of a team examining the existing shortlisted option could also be considered.” It was in this November 2003 meeting chaired by the then National Security Advisor and Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, that the in-principle decision regarding the requirement of the cabin height was brought into the whole deal.

Later, the PMO also wrote a letter to the Chief of the Air Staff on 22 December 2003, expressing concern that the framing of the mandatory requirements for the new helicopters had effectively led to a single vendor situation and it was unfortunate that neither PMO nor SPG were consulted while framing the mandatory requirements.

With these revisions, the PMO observed that several helicopters which otherwise met all requirements but had been rejected due to the altitude restrictions, would now come into the reckoning.

After the UPA took office in 2004, on 1 March 2005, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, directed the MoD to revise the operation requirement in consultation with the PMO and to reissue the tender. After which the Air Force HQ reframed the stipulations and changed the ceiling to 4,500 metre from the earlier ceiling requirement of 6,000 metre and also introduced a requirement of cabin height of at least 1.8 metre, something that was done in principle by the previous NDA government.

The Air Force headquarters, at that time had clearly stated that this new requirement of 1.8 metre would lead to a single vendor situation as in that case only the Agusta EH-101 (AW-101) would comply.

After this, “a discussion chaired by Deputy Chief of Air Staff in Air HQ and attended by Joint Secretary & Acquisition Manager (Air), Director SPG and other officers from Air HQ on 7 March 2005 was held, wherein the cabin height of at least 1.8 metre was added as a mandatory requirement, based on directions given by the NSA and accepted by all members”, says the CAG report.

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