It is curious that the mainstream Indian press and media that raise hell when it comes to anything going wrong with ex-Russian military hardware are strangely silent and fail even to report the findings of the Comptroller and Accountant General regarding problems with Western and US-sourced equipment and platforms. The bulk of the $13+ billion defence purchases from the US over the past decade and more, have been made of high value transport aircraft — the C-17 Globemaster III long haul, heavy duty, planes, and the more versatile C-130J Hercules airlifters that can also double up for expeditionary missions. A govt-to-govt deal was signed in June 2011 for an initial order of 10 C-17s valued in excess of US$ 4.12 billion (Rs 18,645.85 crore).
It is a very good thing IAF finally prioritized distant logistics capability and acquired the C-17s able, in theory, to deliver 70 tonnes payload over 4,200 kms, or some 40 tonnne load to 9,000 kms. So far so good. Now here’s where the glitches begin. A number of precursor conditions needed to obtain for these aircraft to perform optimally in IAF service. A C-17 training simulator had to be set up in and activated PRIOR to the delivery of the planes, so that pilots of the IAF’s 81 Squadron based at Hindan AFB, would have acquired familiarity with on-board systems and operating procedures and protocols, and achieved a certain level of handling knowledge and proficiency before they took to the air. Indeed, it is mandatory that each air crew pull on the simulator 1,700 hours per year for initial qualification, quarterly certification, and “instructional and role clearance and special operations”.
The IAF, as the CAG report notes, wanted one simulator installed and functioning a minimum of THREE MONTHS months “before the delivery” of the first C-17. As per the offset contract (of June 2011), simulator services in India were to be made available by July 2013 for the planes inducted in the period June 2013-December 2014. Audit observed that Boeing “was yet to setup” the simulator through its Indian Offset partners — Mahindra Defence Systems and Tata Consultancy Services, with total value of offsets pertaining to equipment worth US$ 135.08 million (Rs 611.92 crores) for maintenance training simulator and flying training simulator. The lack of these facilities were being made up by 81 Squadron “routing pilots for simulator training” with US Air Force “as per slots given by the US Government”.
Nice. So, there’s actually an incentive for IAF not to make a fuss or the CO, 81 Sqdn, not to agitate for establishing simulators in-country, because air crews and maintenance personnel now get to do their training in America, if this could be for the lifetime of the aircraft, what better? Who can object to such a pleasing arrangement?? Certainly nobody in the IAF!!!
Likewise, the “specialist” ground infrastructure costing US$152.75 million (Rs 723.27 crore), had to be created by Boeing with the programme executed, for quality control purposes, by the US Army Corps of Engineers nominated by Washington (presumably, along with the Indian offset partner, L&T), BEFORE the arrival of the aircraft in June 2013. While as of September 2015, only 54% of the work had been completed, “the completion of the infrastructure” was, CAG says, expected by Dec 2015. Whether this work is finished, CAG Report doesn’t say. Perhaps, as part of the infrastructure, high quality runways with specified pavement classification number (PCN) of 75 are required for C-17s to fly their full load of 70 tonnes. Again, this needed to be in place PRIOR to the induction in IAF of this plane at all the bases planning to host this aircraft — besides Hindan, at Sirsa, Sarsawa, Jammu, Pathankot, Udhampur, with another four airfields Western Air Cmd decided in Dec 2013 would undergo evaluation for PCN upgrade — Awantipur, Chandigarh, and Thoise.
CAG faults IAF for not assessing “suitability of its runways before induction”. The result is sheer “underutilization of pay load capacity”, according to CAG, with C-17s carrying as little as 17 tonnes on sorties and averaging around 26-35 tonnes. “Thus, a costly national asset, procured for carrying heavy loads was not being used as per its capacity.” Vayu Bhavan’s criminally wasteful, kaam chalauu, attitude is reflected in its explanation in April 2016 to CAG: that the C-17 “is capable of operating from runways with lesser PCN value in case situation demands such operation.” And that this assessment “holds good partially in respect of 14 airfields” found “unsuitable for operation” because of “low PCN values and ground maneuvering requirements.” In other words, IAF was prepared, underutilized carrying capacity apart, for faster degrade of the C-17s themselves operating from sub-par runways.
Deficient infrastructure included, of course, absence of ground equipment such as ground handling equipment (forklifts) and for “palletization” and specially trained handlers for them that would have enabled “reduce(d) ground time of a strategic asset whose main aim was rapid deployment”. All there was to expedite loading/unloading is a 13-tonne forklifter occupying 35% of the available cargo space being carried onboard by all C-17s. This requires a couple of sorties to the same destination where just one would have sufficed. The cost penalties are huge considering the cost per flying hour is Rs 43. 19 lakh, which CAG deems “imprudent”.
So, how come IAF and its C-17s are in this mess? The CAG Report plainly blames the fact that “although schedule of quarterly payment to the US Government was defined in the LOA (Letter of Offer & Acceptance) but there was no condition stipulated for imposition of penalty for delay in supplies/delivery of infrastructure services.” In other words, there is an obligation for Boeing to be paid on time and the US Government to deliver, but no obligation for Boeing to deliver, other than the aircraft itself, on the contracted services and infrastructure related to efficient operations of this aircraft. Legally then, Boeing and USG need not deliver the infrastructure until near the end of the lifetime of the aircraft! Not that the IAF cares!
But here’s the nub of the whole issue. How did this substantively flawed and faulty contract pass muster with the Ministry of Defence, and who is responsible for it? Well, the Director-General, Acquisitions, in MOD in June 2013, when the LOA was signed was one Shashikant Sharma, IAS, and hence directly responsible for accepting this contract. Sharma demitted the office of DG, Acquisitions, the next month (in July 2013) but not before concluding the Augusta-Westland VVIP helicopter deal — remember that scam? — for which he was rewarded with posting as Defence Secretary, retiring from which capacity he was appointed CAG by the Manmohan Singh’s Congress party government. And it is as CAG that he now has the chutzpah to pronounce on the shortfalls of the C-17 contract, which he was originally responsible for in the first place. Very rich.
As stated in earlier blogs, Shashikant Sharma on his retirement as CAG in 2017, needs to be investigated for his hand in the Agusta scam, but also for the C-17 fiasco. A start has been made by the CBI fingering HC Gupta (Retd, IAS) former Coal Secretary for the scam in that Ministry during the Manmohan years. There are more important, national security, reasons for investigating Shashikant Sharma and jailing him with a stiff sentence. It will have a huge effect on bureaucrats. Unless accountability becomes the norm, the present phenomenally lax system, ultimately of financial resources mismanagement, will persist, and India willfully reduced, by its minders, to a pauper.