AugustaWestland Helicopter Scam

On September 18, 2020, the CBI filed a supplementary charge-sheet in the AugustaWestland helicopter scam naming key middleman Christian Michel James, accused Rajeev Saxena turned approver and 13 otherswho reportedly include some top government officials without naming any politician. Earlier media reports revealed CBI sought sanction to prosecute former Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma (later Comptroller and Auditor General – CAG) for corruption in the Rs 3,600 croreAugustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal. Sharma’s prosecution would be landmark hopefully leading to prosecuting concerned bureaucrats in other defence scams too.

The norm in defence scams generally is to dump total blame on military officials with bureaucrats laughing all the way home despite the fact that no scam is possible without involvement of bureaucrats who seal the deal ensuring the ‘cuts’ reach beneficiaries before the contract is signed. That is why capital acquisitions even today continue under the Defence Secretary, not the Chief of Defence Staff. Bureaucrats cannot be questioned without government sanction and roping in politicians ensures added protection, not that politicians are innocent – independent India’s first defence scam (Jeep Scandal) was masterminded by Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, In 2010, the UPA government signed a deal with AgustaWestland for procuring 12 x AW101 helicopters for the President, Prime Minister and others.

In 2013 after three helicopters were delivered, the deal was put on hold because Bruno Spagnolini, CEO AgustaWestland and Guiseppe Orsi, Chairman Finmeccanica (parent company) were arrested in Italy on charges of bribing middlemen to acquire the deal. Following this, Defence Minister AK Anthony ordered a probe and CBI registered a case against former IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi (who commanded IAF in period 2004-2007) and 12 others. In March 2013, ACM Tyagi was accused by investigators in Italy and India for reducing flying ceiling of the helicopters from 6,000m to 4,500m at behest of his cousins that enabled AgustaWestland bag the deal

In September 2014, ED arrested Gautam Khaitanon allegations of kickbacks. Later in October 2014, an Italian court acquitted Orsi and former AgustaWestland chairman Spagnolini. But in April 2016, a Milan Court of Appeals sentenced Orsi to four and half years and Spagnolini to four years in jail on charges of false accounting and bribing Indian officials. Same month (April 2016) Christian James Michel, the middleman in the deal (who reportedly is linked with the Gandhi family) offered to join the Indian probe, also writing a letter to the effect to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Same year CBI arrested ACM SP Tyagi along with his cousin Sanjiv Tyagi. Enforcement Directorate alleged payments were made through Tunisia-registered companies controlled by Swiss-based intermediaries Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa– money transferred to accounts in India and Mauritius. ACM Tyagi claimed that change of specifications was a collective decision involving many departments.

CBI was given four days custody of ACM Tyagibut CBI got this extended and he remained in prison for 18 days till a CBI Special Court while granting him bail to ACM Tyagi slammed the CBI, with Special Judge Arvind Kumar observing that CBI failed to show when and how much of the alleged bribe was paid to him despite investigatiosfor almost four years and the allegation that Tyagi’s properties were linked to the alleged illegal gratification was not investigated despite CBI having seized his property documents in 2013. The question is if the CBI did not have sufficient evidence against ACM Tyagi, was his arrested to deflect blame from others? 

Following facts in public domain with respect to the above scam are significant:

    The helicopters were required by the Special Protection Group (SPG) to fly VVIPs.
    Quantity of helicopters required was increased from 8 to 12 by the Prime Minister’s Office.
    IAF had insisted since 1988 that service ceiling of 6,000m was operational necessity to access all border areas. This was also reiterated to the Defence Secretary in January 2004.
    Under instructions issued by National Security Advisor in March 2005, fresh SQR were evolved in consultation PMO and SPG.
    Decision to lower the service ceiling from 6000m to 4500m was taken in a meeting chaired by Defence Secretary during May 2005, which was later approved by the Defence Minister facilitating import of AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopters that fly only up to 4,572m.
    ACM Tyagi could not have lowered the flying ceiling without indulgence of MoD, NSA, SPG and PMO.
    Director SPG was present and on board representational helicopters (not ones being imported) during trials in Italy based on which the deal was signed.
    CBI team that went to Italy did not probe middleman Haschke whose jotting in his diary specifically named Defence Secretary, Joint Secretary (Air), AFA, DG Acquisition, CVC besides others — apparent beneficiaries? 
    In 2016, an Italian court had exonerated ACM Tyagi of all charges.

Shashi Kant Sharma, the Congress blue-eyed boy should have been central to the AgustaWestlandhelicopters probe from day one. He was indispensable to UPA due to services rendered including as Director General Acquisition in MoDsigning the AugustaWestland deal, as DefenceSecretary orchestrating closure of Army’s Technical Support Division, as also and overseeing rumour of army coup while a union minister briefed the skunk of a journalist to publish the fake story. Little wonder Sharma was appointed CAG under exceptional circumstances by UPA. As CAG he defied orders of the Supreme Court to appear in court “personally” in Contempt of Court for not executing SC orders on Rank Pay when Defence Secretary. Yet no action was taken against this arrogant bureaucrat.

Only time will tell whether the move to prosecute Shashi Kant Sharma is politically pressuring the Congress or will the probe be taken to its logical conclusion by punishing the real culprits? Whether ACM Tyagi too was bribed remains to be established (jottings in Haschke’s diary doesn’t mention IAF chief) but as mentioned he couldn’t have lowered service ceilings of the helicopters by himself.  As it stands today, the arrest and humiliation of ACM Tyagi (a service chief) has only served to gladden hearts of the anti-military constituency.

Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post-retirement has published over 2100 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.

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