Sh!t hits the rotor...

The Indian government has become so good at artifice and so bad at telling it like it is, that there is hardly any space left for robust defence acquisition any more. Down goes the 197 Army choppers deal, just like the artillery and a whole handful of other deals in recent years. I just had a couple of thoughts, over and above the stuff we've been reading in the papers and magazines in the last couple of weeks (the latest -- a seriously ruffled Eurocopter flew in its senior Vice President for a press conference this morning at The Imperial, Delhi).

First, let's not get taken in like fools by Eurocopter's bittersweet sincerity about having followed all the rules and not had middlemen. The foregone conclusion of all defence contracts is that middlemen swing deals, and all laws against it have only made them more a part of the chain of sleaze that coats all contracts -- ask anyone, any goverment officer at South Block who you trust. The potential American firm which would have lost out in the deal, Bell, also in all likelihood has middlemen. But that hardly means anything, really! Because, heck, everyone does. The Israelis do (this one's an upcoming story, folks), the goddashed Brazilians do, the Russians have them coming out of everyone's ears, the Swedes do for sure, and the Americans who'll try persuading you with copies of how draconian their own laws are against corruption in defence contracts, probably have the most middlemen of all -- they probably just double as diplomats, but that's a different story. Short point -- the next time an arms contractor says it doesn't have middlemen in India, stick a finger in your throat and barf liberally all over their soft-focus press briefing.

Anyway, getting back to the point, the basic premise for the cancellation of all negotiations with Eurocopter (as reported in a Mail Today cover story) is this: Eurocopter fielded the civilian AS 350 Ecruiel for trials with the Army, even through it proposed to supply the AS 550 Fennec, an identical airframe, but configured with stem shoulders to mount rocket pods, missiles and other munitions. Here's what Eurocopter had to say when the lid was blown: that the two helicopters are identical in every way, and that the military configuration was in the Army's hands. Rich. And sure, the Army will now find out who from the trial team allowed Eurocopter this glaring and coherently prohibited luxury. But it's important to note here that Eurocopter's claim of innocence is ridiculous. How dare the company field a civilian aircraft -- and how, especially, dare it claim that the two helicopters are identical? Shoulders with ammunition pods are serious differences in every possible way. Ask any helicopter pilot who flies Cheetahs and Chetaks. So if the government now nails some greedy fool(s) in the Army, it should equally penalise Eurocopter for assuming that the Army had the right to approve a contravention of the government's Defence Procurement Procedure 2006. So if we're going to go after our own villain, for god's sake don't spare the partners in attempted crime.

Indefatigable US pressure will almost definitely have played a part in the whole "reconsideration" process, but that doesn't allow the French to throw up their arms and shout foul of bad play. If political pressure from Washington has -- and it's definitely a factor -- managed to derail a deal that was ready to be signed with the French, then it has also served to highlight something that only a thief or a fool would call a minor contravention. Also, both the Eurocopter and the Bell choppers fielded for trials reportedly had hard-landing "incidents" during trials in Ladakh -- what's the truth about these? Were our boys pushing them too hard? Or is there muck there too? Let's find out.

But why -- and I can't emphasize this enough -- does the government "scrap" deals. What the f*** is the integrity clause meant for? Doesn't the DPP 2006 specify probity, cards on the table, that sort of thing? If a company doesn't follow the rules, why scrap the deal? The only loser in scrapping a deal is the Army jawan shiveringly waiting for his supplies on the darn Saltoro Ridge. It's the pilot who'll have to make do with limitedly upgraded Cheetahs, because the fricking government doesn't have the cajones to bitchslap a foreign firm and slap it with a penalty, in addition to the unhindered supply of the helicopters agreed upon. Why the hell not? Why scrap the deal entirely and push acquisition back by three bloody years? Get them to give us the helicopters, work out a penalty amount and make the damn company cough it up. THEN, if they don't cooperate, blacklist them indefintiely and push them out of the country by their hair -- go postal on them. But don't scrap the damn deal.

As journalists, we collectively treat the cancellation of a deal as big, great news. It's awful, and tragic and a demonic waste for the very folks we're getting these things for -- our soldiers and pilots.

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