Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: The Quint)
  • 1. What Was India's Requirement for VVIP Choppers?
  • 2. The AgustaWestland Deal
  • 3. When and How Did the Alleged Scam Emerge?
  • 4. The Alleged Scam’s India Connection
  • 5. Key Players & Charges Against Them
  • 6. The Politics of the Case
  • 7. Recent Developments in the VVIP Chopper 'Scam'
VVIP Chopper ‘Scam’: The Complete Lowdown on AgustaWestland Deal

(In a big diplomatic win for the Modi government ahead of the 2019 polls, Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland chopper deal, was extradited to India on Tuesday, 4 December. In that backdrop, this Explainer is being republished. It was first published on 12 January 2018.)

Since the scandal broke in 2012, the AgustaWestland chopper ‘scam’ has caught the imagination of the Indian public. The case became sensational due to the alleged involvement of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, which the BJP accused of corruption for facilitating the procurement of the choppers in 2010. The Indian government wanted to replace its Russian Mi-38 helicopters with modern choppers for VVIP conveyance (to transport the Prime Minister, President and other VVIPs) in 1999, soon after the Kargil War.

Over the next few years, they rejected some of the vendors who offered a cheaper deal, and went ahead with defence major Finmeccanica’s British subsidiary AgustaWestland, ordering 12 of its AWA101 choppers in 2010. It emerged in 2012, during investigations by Italian officials into alleged cases of fraud by Finmeccanica, that the deal with India, worth Rs 3,546-crore (556 million Euros), could possibly have been facilitated by middlemen who took kickbacks.

The alleged involvement of the then Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi in this scandal also caused a stir, with him being arrested on 9 December 2016. Moreover, earlier in the same year, a letter produced before the Italian appeals court in the case allegedly mentioned the names of the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her close political associates including her political secretary Ahmed Patel. This caused an uproar in Parliament days after the revelation, with the BJP making allegations of corruption against the Congress. Why has this case now re-emerged in the public domain?

An Italian appeals court acquitted Giuseppe Orsi, the former president of defence and aerospace giant Finmeccanica, on Monday, 8 January, over charges of alleged bribes paid in exchange for a Rs 3,600 crore VVIP chopper deal to sell 12 AgustaWestland helicopters to the Indian government. Milan’s third court of appeal also acquitted Bruno Spagnolini, former CEO of the company’s helicopters subsidiary AgustaWestland, who had also been handed a four-year jail term on the same charges, Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Orsi was arrested in 2014 and resigned as chief executive of Finmeccanica, which was later renamed Leonardo. He was at the helm of AgustaWestland when the deal was struck and was suspected of involvement in the payment of bribes. While current CBI officials have claimed that this development will not have a bearing on the Indian probe in the case, former CBI Chief AP Singh has contradicted that claim. Here is how the AgustaWestland ‘scam’ unfolded:

Also Read: How Accurate Are Manohar Parrikar’s AgustaWestland Claims?

(This explainer was originally published on 12 January 2018 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives.)

  • 1. What Was India's Requirement for VVIP Choppers?

    Image used for representational purposes.
    India terminated the Rs 3,600 crore deal for VIP choppers with AgustaWestland after bribery allegations tainted the deal on 1 January 2014.
    (File photo: IANS)

    In 1999, soon after the Kargil War ended, the Indian Air Force (IAF) realised it needed to replace its Russian Mi-8 helicopters, used as VVIP conveyance, which had proved to be unsafe. Thus, on Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis’ watch in 2000, the IAF wrote to the Defence Ministry and proposed to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that a new fleet of modern choppers be acquired.

    To this effect, a Request for Proposal (RFP) was floated in March 2002 by the Defence Ministry, to which six suppliers responded, as per a report by The Indian Express. The IAF’s requirement that the chopper should be able to fly at a height of 6,000 metres was only met by the Eurocopter EC-225.

    In 2003, the Special Protection Group (SPG), upon the request of the then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, reported that the EC-225 was unfit for VVIP conveyance, due to its low cabin height of 1.39 metres. Upon the NSA and SPG’s observations, it was decided that, for the new choppers, the flying height requirement of 6,000 metres had to be altered as only one vendor could meet it, and the cabin height had to be increased.

    The specifications had to be modified. Consequently, the IAF came up with the Air Staff Qualitative Requirement for VVIP helicopters in 2003, which lowered the flying ceiling to 4,500 metres and increased the cabin’s minimum height to 1.80 metres.

    At the time of this recalibration, S Krishnaswamy was the IAF chief. In 2004, SP Tyagi took and authorised the new specifications for the choppers, as per a report by The Indian Express. In 2006, the Defence Ministry floated a new RFP with the 2003 specifications to six suppliers. Three companies responded, including defence major Finmeccanica’s British subsidiary AgustaWestland, with its AWA101 chopper.

    By 2007, only two companies – Sikorsky (which made the S-92 helicopters) and AgustaWestland were left in the fray, this time under the tenure of new Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major.

    Thus, the S-92 and AW101 choppers were tried and tested over the next two years. The latter emerged as the clear winner, with its advantage of two extra engines to fall back on in the event of one engine malfunction.

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