18 June 2016

Flying at an all time low

Writing in these columns when the Agusta helicopter saga had hit news headlines earlier, this writer had concluded wistfully that if past performance was any indicator, the end would be predictable. A few reputations and careers of servicemen will be destroyed, the arms agents will move on to the next deal, and the real perpetrators and beneficiaries will live to enrich themselves another day. All that the nation will be left with are the service qualitative requirements with their sanctity open to abuse and the morale of the armed forces further eroded. Little did one realize that some of these reflections would soon come to haunt Indian governance, the institution of the Indian Air Force, its staff systems and processes.

The Italian high court judgment, whilst confirming that bribes had been paid by various officials of AgustaWestland, has given ample indication to where in India they were gratefully received. The involvement of the big fish gets conveniently camouflaged and diluted in partisan politics, but there is no such respite for those in uniform. Not surprisingly, the then air chief seems to have become the focus of the media hype and, indeed, the target of the investigative agencies rather than being incidental to this entire episode, albeit with some accountability.

The scandal, in a nutshell, is this. The IAF air staff requirement for a helicopter for Air HQ Communication Squadron, amongst other requirements, mandated a helicopter with minimum altitude ceiling of six kilometres. This made the Agusta helicopter ineligible. The one that was eligible was duly selected. The final stage of the process was halted at the initiative of the national security advisor in the National Democratic Alliance government for the ostensible reason of wanting to avoid a single vendor situation. To camouflage this interference, the logic of six kilometre maximum altitude and insufficient cabin door size were also questioned. Since the NSA does not feature anywhere in the chain of authority in the formal defence acquisition process, this impropriety was supposedly justified on the grounds of the prime minister's security requirements. The IAF was put on the defensive for not involving the Special Protection Group in the process of formulating ASRs. The stage was now conveniently set for interference by agencies outside of the defence acquisition process. Neither the IAF nor the ministry of defence gathered the moral courage to raise objections. With a change to the United Progressive Alliance government, the new NSA pursued the same line.

In recent interviews, the then chief of air staff has made the following points. Successive NSAs insisted that the SPG be co-opted in amending the ASRs and that pro forma clearance was given to him which he took to be a decision of the government. He also opined that the users were the VVIPs and not the IAF. Whilst his voice of innocence regarding financial impropriety, unless proven otherwise by due process, needs to be respected, the IAF and MoD's meek acceptance of gross interference by NSAs and the SPG in meddling with the ASR process in violation of due MoD processes was an abdication of responsibility. As always, no one is asking questions of the MoD and the mandarins within for having conveniently gone missing in action at the time.

Having served intimately in the Plans Branch of Air HQ at four levels, from group captain to air marshal, this writer finds this gross interference in the IAF's ASR process to be in direct conflict with the principles that were the guiding light of the IAF's planning and procurement ethos. Whether or not these have undergone revision or whether moral flexibility has crept in is difficult to say. But a story of yesteryear when principles and institutions counted for more than pelf needs telling.

This writer moved from the field to the Plans Branch of Air HQ as joint director of Air Staff Requirements in 1977. At the time, one of the pending cases was an IAF proposal to replace the five VIP Communication Squadron old Tu-124s transport aircraft with a more contemporary alternative. This process had been stopped in its tracks by the new Janata government because complaints had been lodged with the Shah Commission of vested political interests pushing for the Boeing 737 during the Emergency. On November 4, 1977, the IAF's elite Communication Squadron Tu-124 jet carrying the prime minister, Morarji Desai, crash-landed short of Jorhat airfield killing five air crew. Providentially, Desai remained unharmed.

Somewhat shaken by the gravity of the near-miss to the prime minister's life, the government promptly ordered an immediate revival of the Tu-124 replacement process for which an ASR already existed. Even as the technical evaluation against the ASR was being conducted by this writer and his team, there were discreet messages from South Block that Boeing 737 was politically sensitive and perhaps another contender whose name was hinted at would expedite the acquisition process. Mercifully, such missives were water off a duck's back in those benign times.

Our technical evaluation and recommendations were duly discussed at the level of DCAS and the CAS where the entire issue of discreet messages of contrary recommendations was also brought to the notice of the superiors. Once the CAS was satisfied at the professional logic of IAF's recommendation, he drove to the defence secretary's office with this writer who was armed with the technical details of the proposal. A patient defence secretary reverentially heard all that the CAS had to share, including the indirect pressure that was being brought to bear. To his abiding credit, he told the CAS that he appreciated the professional conviction of the IAF and would support it to the hilt. The IAF had done its part and it was the MoD's responsibility to manage the political consequences. In hindsight, one can say today that it was the professionalism and high moral values of both these leaders, one military and the other of civil service, that ensured that the IAF Communication Squadron Boeing 737s safely conducted operations for decades. Every professional in the chain understood their responsibility and acted with integrity. The nation triumphed over petty minds and greedy individuals.

The starting point of the induction of any major weapon system in the IAF is the formulation of the ASR, which is broad-based to ensure every relevant input. Since the final authority for effective operational use of the system rests only with the IAF, it is under its authority that the ASR is issued. Abdicating this responsibility to an outsider amounts to the betrayal of the principles of military command and control.

According to international aviation regulations, the safety of the aircraft and every passenger on board is the sole responsibility of the pilot once the aircraft begins to taxi out till it switches off. In the context of VVIP aircraft, the designated IAF user specialists are the directorate of transport and helicopters and the Air HQ Communication Squadron. Both are intimately involved in the formulation of the ASRs and are responsible to ensure safe and efficient conduct of air operations involving VIPs. With recent emphasis on security, these inputs also need consideration in the ASR-formulation process. But neither they nor anyone else can claim to take control of the ASR-formulation process. The final say is that of the IAF, which is responsible for the safety of flight operations.

But there are issues of far deeper import that the nation must ponder beyond financial and other shenanigans that may well have been at play. These relate to the penetration of arms lobbies at the heart of the national security system. Amongst the thousands of documents that were shared by the Italian prosecutors in the present case were references to other Indian military programmers that the Italian company was interested in. Clearly, the armed forces headquarters and the MoD had been penetrated by interested arms lobbies.

There is a far more dangerous trend that seems to be rearing its head. The Milan court order shows that the Tyagi brothers knew well before S.P. Tyagi took over as chief in December 2004 that the defence ministry would lower the altitude requirement for the helicopter based on which payments to them had commenced in May 2004 itself. Since the then chief was unwilling to compromise on altitude requirements, can it be assumed that this confidence stemmed from an advanced knowledge of IAF succession plans?

Appointments to the highest office in the armed forces have been the subject of lobbying and manipulation. It was not long ago that the topic came under media scrutiny when allegations were made of lines of succession being manipulated in the case of the army. Even at that time, the role of arms lobbies in influencing outcomes was mentioned. That bureaucratic and political lobbying by military aspirants is prevalent is hardly a secret. If there are whispers of the involvement of arms lobbies, then national security is now teetering on the edge. Is it too much to expect that parliamentarians and leaderships across the political divide would sense these dangers and act in unison? Or will they succumb to the temptation of scoring political brownie points to the detriment of national security? Only time will tell.

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force

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