Who were the main actors pushing for the controversial Rs10,000 crore medium-range surface-to-air (MRSAM) contract with the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)?
The deal, signed on February 27, just days before the general election was announced, had an unheard of clause for paying Rs600 crore (6% of the contract value) as “business charges”.
While Israel’s Elul Group is already under scrutiny, serious questions are also being raised about a retired Indian Air Force (IAF) officer who played a crucial role in formally proposing purchase of MRSAMs from Israel.
This officer was also responsible for scuttling the large-scale induction of the indigenous surface-to-air missile Akash.
Over the past few days, DNA’s investigation has raised questions about the controversial deal with IAI, which is already being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in connection with the Barak missile deal of 2000. The MRSAM deal was signed despite initial vigilance objections, neutral legal opinions, and the success of the indigenous Advanced Air Defence missile of similar capability.
DNA’s investigation found that the IAF officer, who retired about two years ago, is now working for the Israeli arms industry in New Delhi.
Without naming the officer, Defence Research & Development Organisation chief M Natarajan told a press conference in Bangalore during the Aero India show last month that the officer had slashed his predecessor’s commitment to induct eight squadrons of Akash missiles. The officer had brought the figure down to just two squadrons. Akash has a range of 27km, while MRSAM has a range of about 70km.
A source in the defence ministry confirmed that even for the induction of these two Akash squadrons, the IAF put a condition that the DRDO must first agree to the MRSAM project. “We were blackmailed into the MRSAM project,” said the source.
“He [the former IAF officer] killed Akash, blackmailed us to agree to MRSAM, and is now working for them [Israeli arms companies] openly.”
“Yes, we are aware (that the officer is working for Israelis),” said a senior defence ministry official, who had defended the government for going ahead with the MRSAM deal.
The official said the ministry has not yet sought clarification from the officer because he retired “two years ago”. But “he has very limited access in the defence ministry and air headquarters,” the official claimed.
The retired officer had held such a crucial position in the IAF that it is surprising why the government has closed its eyes to his alliance with foreign arms firms after retirement.
The role of another IAF officer is also coming under scrutiny in this matter. He is associated with Nova Integrated Systems, the Tata-IAI joint venture which will be integrating the MRSAM.
Several officials in the defence ministry are baffled how a private-sector firm has been nominated as the integrator for the sensitive missile system. In India, all missile systems are integrated in public-sector units, usually Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL).
In fact, DRDO suggested BDL as the integrator for the MRSAM, with Israelis supplying the seeker and some radar components and DRDO making the airframe, servos, and propulsion. But Nova will be doing the integration now.
This is yet another decision that has raised eyebrows. Sources in the defence establishment believe it is a perfect example of how the Israelis were able to get through whatever they wanted.