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US green signal for Singh’s Boeing
- Cabinet clears purchase of three planes after Washington security nod

New Delhi, Sept. 6: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will soon fly the Indian version of Air Force One, thanks to closer security relations between India and the US.

The US government has given permission to Boeing to sell three business jets equipped with an anti-missile system fitted to the belly of the aircraft to confuse homing missiles using advanced technology. There will also be a special scrambler device to make all communication from the plane to ground stations safe from intercepts.

Today, the cabinet committee on security cleared the purchase after being told the US was prepared to give the aircraft, loaded with the security-sensitive equipment, similar to Air Force One that carries the American President.

For nearly a year and a half, the sale was held up because of objections from the US security establishment. Attempts by Boeing to sell the luxury jet for use by the Indian Prime Minister and President minus the sophisticated equipment were unacceptable to the defence ministry, which is handling the purchase.

The three Boeings, which were initially contracted for the President, Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister, will cost the government nearly Rs 1,000 crore. The security equipment alone costs nearly Rs 200 crore.

Top diplomats and defence officials were involved in the attempt to persuade the US government to allow Boeing to sell the jets, which are custom-built long-range B737-700 series aircraft capable of flying 12 hours non-stop.

It was only after the two nations started to come closer in terms of shared security perceptions that the US began to consider allowing India the jets loaded with the equipment. Officials said the jets would be delivered by 2009 and join the Indian Air Force’s VIP squadron.

The Indian government, which had initially considered two aircraft ' the Boeing business jet and Airbus A319-CJ ' homed in on the Boeing because of its security features, lower maintenance cost (though it is a guzzler using up about 20 per cent more fuel than competing luxury jet Global Express) and its spacious cabin.

It has an 800-sq-ft cabin which can be customised to meet individual or business requirements for 25 to 50 passengers with an executive office, conference rooms, private offices or dining rooms, bedrooms and shower.

The glass cockpit is fitted with an HGS-4000 system, which gives improved low-visibility take-off guidance and runway deceleration cueing and has advanced display features.

India’s VIP fleet has three ageing 737-200s with two standby aircraft purchased from Indian Airlines. With an average life of over 20 years, these planes are considered rickety at best.

Any trip abroad by Singh forces the government to “borrow” a plane or two from Air-India and Indian Airlines, an embarrassing ritual that sometimes causes the airlines to reschedule commercial flights.

For Boeing, too, the deal is important. It wants to sell Boeing commercial airliners to Air-India but the fact that it was not allowed to sell to the Prime Minister meant embarrassing questions every time its executives met senior Indian officials.

Before the sales were cleared, the Indian Air force received 14-seater Legacy aircraft from Embraer which are to be used to ferry VIPs on short tours within the country. These too are equipped with a US-made, cheaper and slightly less effective version of the anti-missile system the Boeings will have.

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