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Skyfall choppers in the cooler
- No spares for copters bought before Agusta contract was scrapped

New Delhi, Jan. 31: The Indian Air Force is mothballing its James Bond choppers, its “lal-battis-in-the-sky”.

Quite apart from being an Aam Aadmi effect, the choppers are being put in the cooler because the government is unable to decide what to do with them after cancelling the contract. The choppers are not flight-worthy because the IAF has run out of spares. The squadron to which they were assigned has stopped practice sorties to train the crew.

Three of the 12 AgustaWestland choppers — bought in a deal worth $770 million — that were meant to fly the President, Prime Minister and other dignitaries, have been grounded.

Their removable parts and the machine itself are being packed and stowed away at hangars in Palam and in Hindon near Delhi because the defence ministry cannot decide on their fate and the air force has run out of spares.

Since the January 1 cancellation of the contract by A.K. Antony’s defence ministry, the mothballing effectively means some Rs 3600 crore being stashed away, with its use left to be decided in an uncertain future. The AW-101 choppers were bought by the air force in consultation with the Prime Minister’s security force.

At the time the helicopter was chosen it was thought to be the best in the business — even if they proved too expensive for US President Barack Obama. The super-luxury helicopters complete with self-protection suites featured in the James Bond film Skyfall.

The air force is now running out of choppers in which to fly VVIPs. The Mi-8 helicopters with the IAF Headquarters’ Communication Squadron have all but exhausted their total technical life. They have to be scrapped.

The IAF was initially toying with the idea of converting its latest Russian-origin Mi-17 V5 helicopters for VVIP use. But the military helicopters, seen in action in Uttarakhand after last year’s flash flood (one crashed, killing 20 people on board), are not certified for civilian flights.

AgustaWestland, and its holding company, Finmeccanica, were earlier this week barred from participating in Defexpo 2014, one of Asia’s largest defence exhibitions, scheduled to start in New Delhi next week.

India froze payments for the helicopters last February after Italian investigators arrested and began questioning Finmeccanica’s chief executive on charges that the company had used agents to swing the Indian deal, among other contracts.

“The government of India has terminated with immediate effect the agreement that was signed with M/S. AgustaWestland International Ltd (AWIL) on 08 February, 2010 for the supply of 12 VVIP/VIP helicopters on grounds of breach of the Pre-contract Integrity Pact and the agreement by AWIL,” a government statement on January 1 said. But the Indian government has also agreed to arbitration. Antony has said his ministry was complying with all legal processes.

But the mothballing of the choppers is the latest in a series of actions that the defence ministry has taken in a crackdown on corruption that hurt its armed forces more than anyone else. The ministry is also examining whether to go ahead in procuring 197 light utility helicopters for the army after a brigadier involved in the trials was named by Finmeccanica executives or agents hired by them. That deal has already been postponed once.

The AW-101 is the biggest military contract to be cancelled. As of now, investigators in Italy and in India, where the CBI has taken up the case, have not established a money trail that is evidence of bribes having been paid. Former Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi is among 13 others being examined by the CBI.

US-origin Sikorsky S-92 Superhawk was the main competitor for the Indian VVIP chopper deal. Before the contract was signed in 2010, Antony had said it was chosen after the approval of the finance ministry. The finance ministry had shot down, at the same time, an Indian Air Force choice for mid-air refuellers that the IAF had projected as an operational requirement.