The AgustaWestland chopper scam may hit the $18 billion deal (Rs 90,000 crore) to buy 126 combat jets for the Indian Air Force with a rattled defence ministry thinking of revisiting the contract now.
Top defence ministry (MoD) officials told DNA that two senior defence finance wing officials had red-flagged the method through which French firm Dassault Rafale beat the Swedes and Americans to bag the order for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Keeping that and the copter scam in mind, the MoD plans to proceed extremely cautiously before signing the final contract with Rafale.
It took the MoD over 12 years to finalise the combat jet deal and any further delay is bad news for our air defence capabilities. The IAF has a sanctioned squadron strength of at least 45 fighter jet squadrons. But it effectively has only 30 squadrons operational as old aircraft have been retired. The indigenously-developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was supposed to replace the ageing aircraft but delays in the programme underscored the need for the induction of 126 new combat jets.
The Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) comprising senior defence and IAF officials, is examining the deal. Once the committee clears it, the deal will go to independent monitors appointed by the Central Vigilance Commission and then to the National Security Council Secretariat, before final clearance from the Finance Ministry.
“In a CNC meeting last February, two senior members of defence finance raised objections about the methods adopted to select Rafale as the lowest bidder,” a senior defence ministry official told DNA on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“Their objections are on record. Even if the CNC completes its work, these objections could create problems. So, we need to rethink the deal before sending it to finance ministry,” the source added.The CNC was set up in February 2012 to negotiate the deal and iron out details.
“Cancellation or any delay in procuring MMRCA is going to hit the entire process of modernisation of IAF. It will have serious consequences as we have already spent time and huge amounts of money to have these aircraft. If the deal does not go through, it will be a disaster,” former IAF chief, Air Chief marshal S Krishnaswamy (Retd), told DNA.