The Special Protection Group (SPG), the elite force which protects the Prime Minister, former prime ministers, and their immediate relatives, has again moved the government to buy a fleet of helicopters to ferry VVIPs, but the proposal hasn’t found traction because of an ongoing VVIP helicopter controversy involving AgustaWestland.
Months before the 2014 elections, the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was put on the back foot as allegations of bribery surfaced in the purchase of the VVIP helicopters. In a bid to control the damage, the government eventually scrapped the acquisition of 12 AW101 AgustaWestland helicopters from Italian firm Finnmeccanica.
A former chief of air staff was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes and wrongdoing. Never in the history of independent India has such a high-ranking officer from the forces been arrested.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) are both expected to play the lead role in deciding what kind of helicopters are to be bought to fly the Prime Minister and other senior members of the government. But in this case, each wants the other to take the initiative, said a senior government official who didn’t want to be identified. “We have asked them (the SPG) to draw up the specification for the aircraft on their own,” another senior government official said on the condition of anonymity, adding that there was at least one meeting between SPG and IAF over the issue.
In the purchase of AW101 helicopters, IAF had drawn up the specifications.
The former air force chief was arrested for allegedly changing the specifications of the aircraft to favour a particular manufacturer, in that case Finmeccanica.
Queries sent to the Indian Air Force remained unanswered till the time of going to press.
Currently, VVIPs are ferried on military helicopters – Russian made Mi-17 V5s and MI-17s. The Mi-8 helicopters that were being used earlier have been almost phased out. The Mi17-V5 and Mi-17 helicopters are sturdy and are specially configured to fly senior government functionaries but do not have several features that SPG wants.
Aircraft meant for prime ministers and senior government functionaries must have very advanced electronic warfare suites, advanced warning for incoming missiles, armour plating to survive small-arms fire, and the ability to take off and land in bad weather conditions, among other things. “The current helicopters, although good, may not have all these capabilities to the desired extent,” said a third government official who asked not to be named.