Way back in 1999, soon after the Kargil battle, the Indian government decided to replace its Mi-38 Russian helicopters with modern choppers for VVIP travel. And thus began the long and unending search for the new choppers which shook the defence establishment and once again brought to fore the murky world of defence deals.
After many trials and changes to quality requirements, the Indian Air Force, in consultation with the Special Protection Group and the Prime Minister’s Office, finally settled with the 12 of the AWA101 choppers of Italian defence major Finmeccanica’s British subsidiary AgustWestland in 2010.
However, just two years later, major allegations of corruption and kickbacks in the deal emerged which shook the defence ministry and snowballed into a major political controversy forcing the government to cancel the Rs 3,726 crore deal even though three choppers had already being delivered.
A number of IAF officials including its former chief Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi, then SPG chief Bharat Vir Wanchoo along with then NSA M K Narayanan came under the scanner of the investigative agencies.
Air Marshal Tyagi later became the first former chief of defence services to be arrested. The CBI is pursuing the case against him in a Delhi court. At the centre of the entire alleged scam is the key changes that were brought to the Air Staff Quality Requirements, which agencies alleged enabled AgustaWestland to bag the deal even though it did not meet the initial criteria.
IAF had initially sought choppers that can fly at 18,000 ft and because of this only one company Eurocopter made the cut as it could fly at that altitude.
To avoid a single vendor situation, then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra sought to change the ceiling requirement from 18,000 ft to 15,000 ft in 2003 when the IAF chief was S Krishnaswamy. He also sought o bring in the SPG into the picture since after all the security of the Prime Minister is looked after by the specialized force.
The changes were finally made during the UPA era when the IAF chief was Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi. Last year, the CBI told a Delhi court that specifications were changed to enable the AgustaWestland company meet eligibility criteria for the supply of VVIP helicopters.
The CBI argued that the accused including Tyagi, hatched a criminal conspiracy to change the specifications of the contract — including cabin height and operational flight ceiling — to favour AgustaWestland.
CBI charge sheet names Tyagi, his cousin Sanjeev alias Julie, then IAF Vice Chief J S Gujral, advocate Gautam Khaitan, Finmeccanica’s former chief Giuseppe Orsi, former AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini, and three alleged European middleman Christian Michel, Guido Haschke, and Carlo Gerosa as accused.
It is alleged that Gujral in 2005 introduced the requirement of cabin height of 1.8 metres, which earlier was neither mandatory nor desirable. The CBI’s contention is that words “at least twin-engine” were inserted in the amendment proposal in 2005 to bring AgustaWestland. The AW-101 sported three engines.
Investigative agencies allege that bribes to the tune of Rs 350 crore were paid as kickbacks through middlemen and a complex route of companies in several countries by AgustaWestland to change the contract specifications by reducing operational flight ceiling from 6,000 metres, as originally proposed, to 4,500 metres.