With the government scrapping the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal following allegations of corruption, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is readying its fleet to ferry VVIPs during their campaign trail for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Russia-made military transport Mi-17 V-5 helicopters will be used to ferry the prime minister and other VVIPs, defence ministry sources said.
As part of the deal, the government was supposed to procure 12 AW101 helicopters from Anglo-Italian defence giant AgustaWestland. IAF officials said the cancellation of the deal was a big setback as the proposal to replace the ageing fleet of VVIP choppers (Mi-8s) was taken 14 years ago. The three-decade-old Mi-8 helicopters used by the IAF will be phased out by next month.
Sources told dna that the defence ministry has no immediate plans to hunt for new choppers while global tenders to procure helicopters will take several years.
“We are looking at the possibility of upgrading the Mi-17 V-5 fleet because the IAF is not getting AW101. The Special Protection Group (SPG), the elite force which handles the prime minister’s security, will be consulted to overview the upgrade as per their specification,” an IAF officer said.
Another officer said Mi-8 was considered unsafe for flying above 2000 mt and that it also does not fulfil the stringent security requirement prescribed by the SPG. “The Mi-8s do not have adequate space to accommodate safety equipment recommended by the SPG. But in Mi-17 V5, we will install self-protection anti-missile suites and medical evacuation systems along with all weather and night-flying capabilities,” the officer said.
In 2004, the SPG played a major role in framing technical specifications for helicopters purchases, which ultimately allowed AW101 in the race.
India ordered 80 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia in 2008 for Rs7,700 crore, which were expected to be delivered by the end of 2014. Subsequently, a follow-on clause was invoked to buy 59 more choppers for Rs5,500 crore.
The Mi-17 V5 – a medium-lift helicopter -- has operated in various terrains, including the Siachen Glacier, and has proven its mettle in UN missions too. It can carry over 5 tonnes of load. The IAF claims that Mi-17 V5 is equipped with state-of-the-art avionics and navigation systems like on-board weather radar and autopilot. It also has advanced night-vision equipment and a glass cockpit.
“The Mi-17 V5 is the most upgraded transport helicopter with the IAF. But it needs be customised for VVIP transport. The process to convert these choppers to meet the immediate requirement to ferry VVIPs will begin soon,” an IAF officer said.