With the Indian government and AgustaWestland on the verge of what could be lengthy litigation over the cancellation of a deal for 12 AW101 VVIP helicopters, the Indian air force (IAF) has decided to fast-track a back-up, with time running out for its shaky fleet of Soviet-era Mi-8 executive transport rotorcraft.

India's defense ministry has formally initiated paperwork and discussions that will potentially lead to a fresh competition. Until then, however, the air force must have helicopters to ferry government leaders and visiting dignitaries.

The IAF's New Delhi-based VVIP squadron has told the defense ministry its 26-year-old Mi-8s could be modified to serve another three to four years, though this—in the words of a senior pilot—was an “absolutely avoidable stopgap.” His concerns are shared by defense acquisition officers who argue that the aircraft are at the end of their useful life, and ferrying dignitaries in them would “not work.”

The possibility of an interim overhaul of the Mi-8 fleet by state-owned HAL has not been ruled out. But the air force is considering a second, more likely stopgap—modifying some of its brand-new Mi-17 V5 new-generation medium-lift helicopters for the VVIP role. The air force has ordered 139 V5s, several of which performed stellar missions during a massive humanitarian relief effort in northern India last year. But the idea that Mi-17s could be used to ferry Indian government leaders has raised eyebrows in the charged atmosphere that continues to swirl in the wake of the AgustaWestland scandal.

“I don't see how the IAF can even think of flying country leaders in Mi-17s, considering its maker was eliminated from the original competition for refusing to sign the mandatory integrity pact,” says a senior Finmeccanica executive.

The executive is right. In February of last year after the scandal broke, while detailing the 2006 VVIP acquisition effort the Indian defense ministry officially stated: “Rosoboronexport did not submit an earnest money deposit and the integrity pact, along with their technical and commercial proposals. It had been made clear to Rosoboronexport in February 2007 that this was a global tender and hence every contractual clause would be the same for all vendors. As no integrity pact and earnest money deposit were received from Rosoboronexport, their techno-commercial offer was not accepted.”

This, however, may be a technicality the IAF is willing to overlook.

A Rosoboronexport trade officer based in New Delhi says: “The Mi-17 is a proven platform. We believe it is the right way to go before a permanent decision is made on a new platform. We have also made a proposal to configure some of the yet-to-be supplied V5 airframes for VVIP transport roles. The government is evaluating this offer.”

Given the sensitivities surrounding defense procurement, especially in an election year, the Mi-17 option appears likely to be chosen. For the air force, choosing the Mi-17 would provide new airframes without a fresh acquisition.

Sikorsky, which lost the Indian VVIP helicopter competition to AgustaWestland, is observing developments cautiously from the sidelines, careful not to step into the turbulence too directly for now. A top executive in the company's Indian division confirmed that Sikorsky was standing by to respond to any specific request made by the Indian defense ministry. India's 2006 defense buying rules laid down provisions for emergency acquisitions or lease of tendered equipment from a compliant runner-up in the event of a deal cancellation, he points out. He adds that the company had internally prepared a “customized solution” based on the S-92, but would hold onto it until approached by the government.

With the Indian government moving to return the three delivered AW101 helicopters to AgustaWestland, the company has strenuously tried to convince the defense ministry to reconsider. Top defense officials said AgustaWestland had advised the Indian government to keep and operate the three helicopters for VVIP missions, and that a decision on returning them could be made if corrupt practices were conclusively proven in an Italian court. The company is understood to have also offered to maintain the aircraft for that stated period.

But with the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducting a parallel investigation into the deal, and with the scandal already damaging the government's image in the election season, it appears highly unlikely that AgustaWestland helicopters will fly an Indian prime minister or president.