March 3, 2013 4:13:29 pm
Choppergate raises question marks over Dassault’s re-entry into MMRCA.
Dassault Aviation flew back into the race after being ejected initially for technical non-compliance.
Deal to acquire 12 helicopters from AgustaWesland for VVIP use has gone sour due to allegations of kickbacks paid to alter tender requirements in its favor.
AgustaWestland was not in the race initially but went on to win the contract apparently,due to the modifications.
‘Choppergate’,as this scandal is popularly called now threatens to engulf Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) – the $15 billion tender to acquire 126 fighters for the Indian Air Force.
As it turns out,Choppergate has an uncanny similarity to MMRCA.
Dassault Aviation,the French Company whos Rafale has been selected by the Ministry of Defense as the preferred bidder was ousted from the contract in the beginning but then made a dramatic re-entry to emerge at the top.
Rafale edged out the American F-16 and F-18,Russian MiG 35 and Sweden’s Gripen on the basis of technical performance and the pan-European Eurofighter Consortiums Typhoon on life-cycle costs.
Reportedly,in April 2009 Rafale was officially knocked out during the technical evaluation stage of the MMRCA for non-compliance. The aircraft was barred from taking part in the next stage of the evaluation process i.e. the field trials. As was reported at the time,there were gaps in the technical bid submitted by Dassault. Ministry of Defense queried the French company seeking clarification. However,not convinced by the incomplete responses it received,the ministry excluded Dassault from further participation in the tender.
Then a month later,news appeared of Rafale being back in the race. A defence ministry official was quoted as saying “Since it was only paper evaluation and the French company Dassault Aviation has now supplied the missing answers,the Defense Procurement Board has decided to allow Rafale to take part in the actual field trials.”
At the time much was not made of Dassault’s sudden change of fortune. Why would a company leave gaps in its bid and then respond callously to official clarification for a tender widely regarded as the mother of all defence deals in India? More importantly,what prompted Ministry of Defence to make a u-turn and reverse its decision of disqualifying Dassault?
Choppergate has brought these questions back in focus.
Incidentally,almost three years after the comeback and just weeks after it emerged lowest bidder (L-1) in January 2012,media reports appeared of two senior defense ministry officials disagreeing with the cost calculations leading to Rafale’s selection. Both officials were part of the high level Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) constituted by the Ministry of Defense to negotiate MMRCA. Apparently,some information was missing in the French company’s bid forcing CNC to make assumptions. The contention of the dissenting officials was that no one had validated those assumptions. Both officials,initially refused to counter sign the calculations but later surrendered after noting their reservations on the file.
This was followed by a letter from then Rajya Sabha MP M.V. Mysura Reddy to Defense Minister Antony alleging irregularities in the selection process. Reddy sought a review of the whole procedure. Antony responded by ordering an internal enquiry which later gave a green signal.
However,now Choppergate has thrown a fresh challenge in the speedy conclusion of MMRCA which has been termed “highest priority” acquisition by the Air Force Chief.
Determined to not let MMRCA become another scandal,Antony has promised multiple levels of scrutiny by different government agencies including the Central Vigilance Commission before the deal moves to Finance Ministry and finally the Cabinet committee on Security for approval.
This vetting is bound to add to the time it will take to resolve the outstanding issues. According to highly placed sources cost inflation by Dassault,its unwillingness to transfer high technology and reservations against a lead role for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) in the local production of 108 aircrafts are some of the sticking points.
In an indication that contract signature is still some distance away,Dassault Aviation Chief Executive Eric Trappier reportedly said in February at Aero India “It’s not surprising that it takes a bit of time.” “The ideal would be to sign it in 2013” Trappier added.
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