Scrappy Indian Navy Copter Bid Nears End

PHOTOS: NH90 ¬©NHIndustries / S-70B ¬©Savvas Garozis
The Indian Navy's delayed 16 multirole helicopter (MRH) procurement programme is all set for the opening of commercial bids shortly. The programme has the NHIndustries NH90 squaring off against the Sikorsky S-70B Sea Hawk for a contract potentially worth $1-billion. Field evaluation trials were conducted late last year.

Indications are that the Indian government could hand this one to Sikorsky. But nothing is finished yet, and things have been far from smoothe.

As things speed towards the concluding leg of the acquisition, the Navy will be hoping it has seen the last of a controversy that still threatens to put a spanner in the works -- never a far cry in Indian defence contracting. Reports began to appear in the press earlier this year about how AgustaWestland (joint venture partner in NHIndustries, and company lead in India) had written a series of letters to the MoD protesting against what it saw as a lack of fair play -- in other words, preferential waivers on performance/platform parameters/configuration to Sikorsky's bird. The reports also detailed how the Indian Navy had hit back hard, accusing NHIndustries of a variety of misdemeanours, including "twisting" and "falsifying" elements of the NSQR/RFP -- something that NHIndustries denied. As a result of this back and forth, which still incidentally isn't really over, the acquisition already has a shadow over it. Officially, the Navy has clarified that both platforms -- the NH90 and Seahawk -- met NSQRs (though, of course, NHI insists that the Seahawk is compliant only as a result of alleged relaxations).

The chief complaint letter was written by NHIndustries managing director Domenico Vaccari to Defence Minister A.K. Antony following field trials last year, alleging that the S-70B wouldn't have cleared eight particular parameters if the NSQR hadn't been glossed over preferentially. It is understood that Vaccari wrote that letter to Antony since a previous letter by AgustaWestland senior veep for international business development Giacomo Saponaro to Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma wasn't answered.

According to the Navy, the trials were conducted "professionally, equally" and "without any concessions -- certainly none that were not provided to both contenders on a mutually acceptable basis." The Navy has not commented on specific allegations pertaining to its NSQR.Things are, therefore, delicately poised for NHIndustries. It has already managed to irritate the Navy (quite clear from how the Navy responded to the company's letters to the MoD), though  annoyance should presumably have no bearing at this late stage of the game. There's also deep irony to NHIndustry's allegations that the playing field is anything but level. Just over two years ago, right before the Indian government awarded a prestigious $700-million contract for 12 VVIP transport helicopters to AgustaWestland, Sikorsky (which lost out with its S-92) wrote to the MoD asking for an explanation about certain "concessions" it believed had been granted to its competitor. It's a replay now, only the sides are switched.

In simple words, the Indian Navy's official line is this: The only reason a competitor would protest before a decision is that they're sure they are going to lose or if they did not, for whatever reason, want to compete (i.e. they wanted a government-to-government deal). At this stage, nobody is in a position to judge who is ahead. Both platforms have met requirements.

On the other hand, sources suggest there are extraneous factors that could have predetermined the outcome of this particular competition already. It was only a few months ago that the Indian government informed Parliament that Italian investigations into alleged corruption at AgustaWestland had nothing to do with the Indian deal. But the issue raised enough heat and friction, and the fact that the helicopters were ordered for the country's politicians -- not the armed forces -- got it even more traction. Sources say the government is unlikely to want to take any chances.

The MRH is intended to augment and then replace the Indian Navy's fleet of Westland Seakings. The Navy is also in the process of evaluating upgrade packages for the old Seakings. The 16-chopper MRH competition is to be followed by the N-MRH (just in case nomenclature wasn't confusing enough), a separate tender for 44 helicopters. Lockheed-Martin's MH-60R -- based on the same airframe as the S-70B -- and which was ignored in the MRH, will be a contender.

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