The Agusta deflection

The Sukhoi-30, the LCA, and now the Rafale, will have to hold the ‘thin blue line’ in the skies until the almost mystical FGFA enters the Air Force inventory

National security has never been a high priority item in India. This is being demonstrated yet again by the polemics raging in Parliament around alleged linkages with murky Italian intermediaries said to be involved in the bribery for the acquisition of 12 Italian AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters for the VIP fleet of the Indian Air Force.

The defence ministry has placed the Agusta contract under intensive scrutiny and reexamination, in which the Central Vigilance Commission and Comptroller and Auditor General have also impleaded themselves. The matter is now under discussion in the Budget Session of Parliament by an intensely divided and hugely partisan assembly, until the urgency is overtaken by other breaking news. The implications of such debates are linked to the survival of a not too secure government, which cannot afford any mistakes in a pre-election year. All else, including national security and defence preparedness, comes later, and can even be jettisoned for the present.
As things stand, the Agusta deal seems to be losing altitude, and if it does ultimately crash land, there are fair chances that the resultant tremors will impact the procurement of other even more critical equipment, for which negotiations are also under way. One serious possible fallout from an Agusta deal going wrong is its potential to cast a shadow over negotiations for the Rafale, a fighter aircraft of French origin selected by the Indian Air Force as its future Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) for which a letter of intent has been issued in January 2012 to the French aviation giant Dassault.
This is a major and critically important acquisition, immensely more vital to the Indian Air Force than VIP helicopters. The Rafale contract is scheduled to cost big money — an estimated $10.3 billion for the induction of 126 Rafale fighters into the Indian Air Force, (vis-a-vis $748 million for the Agusta VIP helicopters), the process to commence in 2017 and continue over the next 10 years, i.e. at least up to 2027 if all goes smoothly. If and when it is finally inducted into service, the Rafale will thus remain operational for well over three if not four decades forming a substantial component of Indian air power at least up to the mid-21st century. So, can the ultimate outcome of the Agusta deal leave its mark on the negotiations for the Rafale, and therefore on the future of Indian air power? That is something only time can tell, but at this time, the possibility certainly does exist.
It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that VIP helicopters are non-critical assets, which only marginally affect the operational capability of the Indian Air Force, if at all. But the requirement for the Rafale is on another level of urgency altogether, a frontline fighter aircraft to replace the obsolete MiG-21, which still flies on as the warhorse of the main battle fleet, until the Rafale arrives. Between them, the Sukhoi-30, the LCA, and now the Rafale, will have to hold the “thin blue line” in the skies until the almost mystical Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) finally enters the Air Force inventory, which is yet another story by itself.
It should therefore be a matter for great concern to the entire nation that the utterly partisan political debate in the country will multiply the psychological stress of the “Agusta affair” by raising the ghost of Bofors, and quite possibly stampede a nervous government anxiously awaiting the national elections in 2014, into jettisoning both the Agusta and the Rafale programmes, putting them into cold storage, for the next government to revive if it be so inclined.
Shortages and obsolescence of aircraft and helicopters are not the only internal threat faced by the Indian Air Force. More dangerous is the deliberate targeting of the Air Force itself by malicious and so far unsubstantiated insinuations against its respected senior personalities, put out daily in the visual media, by vicious anchor personalities engaged in their own cut throat competition for TRP ratings. The Agusta affair has already succeeded in damaging the Air Force considerably by generating airtime for totally unprincipled anchor — personalities in their snarling dogfights generally criticising the Agusta deal and by insinuation the Air Force itself.
The outcome of the Agusta-phobia is already becoming increasingly apparent by the day. The Rafale programme already seems to have developed hiccoughs, with the so-called Italian “middle men” being discovered almost behind every bush, but no credible evidence yet though plenty of innuendo about the Indian end of the connection.
Election time 2014 is approaching, with insecurities mounting amongst the political classes. This is a bad time in India for the ongoing defence negotiations. The minister of defence has a record of in-your-face honesty, which he painfully preserves by threatening to fall on his sword at the least provocation. Nothing wrong with honesty or transparency at all, but surely, at some stage, modernisation of the Indian armed forces also requires to be progressed.
The Indian system of defence acquisitions seems to have really perfected a tendency to threaten harakiri on the least provocation. But in the end it really does not matter whether the Agusta contract ultimately gets finalised or not. The Air Force can even take a perverse kind of consolation in the fact that in any case only a very limited number from the military would ever get access to these rotary-wing flying palaces which would largely be monopolised by political personalities for their own purposes (including visits to the Kumbh Mela)!
However, as each passing day sees more facts emerging in the media, a belated sense of balance is becoming visible.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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