NEW DELHI — While no decision has been made to blacklist Italian helicopter maker AgustaWestland over alleged bribery charges, sources within the Indian Defence Ministry say officers there believe neither the firm nor parent company Finmeccanica should be banned from doing business in India because it could jeopardize several ongoing weapon programs.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony told Parliament on April 29 that AgustaWestland will remain in competition for two programs despite the ongoing probe involving the sale of 12 helicopters to India in 2010. Antony argued that since the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe was set up after the tenders had been submitted, AgustaWestland can still compete.
The two ongoing competitions are for 56 utility helicopters for the Navy and 14 twin-engine helicopters for the Coast Guard, Antony told Parliament.
AgustaWestland is competing with Eurocopter for the Navy contract. The Navy plans to procure the light helicopters to replace its aging Cheetah and Chetak helicopters.
In the Coast Guard contest, Sikorsky and Eurocopter have submitted bids along with AgustaWestland.
Both Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland executives here declined to comment on the subject.
MoD sources said the chances of blacklisting Finmeccanica are “very slim” as the company is upgrading India’s A244 lightweight torpedoes while offering its Black Shark torpedoes.
The upgrades will extend the life of the A244-S torpedoes by another 20 years. The torpedoes will be fitted with a new fire control system and will have improvedrange, speed and target detection.
In another important weapon program, Finmeccanica’s Selex has been awarded a contract to supply an advanced 3-D band air surveillance radar for the Indian Navy’s homegrown aircraft carrier being built at Cochin Shipyard.
Senior Indian Navy officers have already told the MoD that any move to blacklist Finmeccanica will harm India’s aircraft carrier program, which is already delayed by more than four years.
The 3-D radar is a long-range early warning radar that can detect aircraft up to 400 kilometers away.
India has blacklisted Denel of South Africa, Singapore Technologies, IMI of Israel and Rheinmetall of Germany.
The blacklisting has harmed several weapon projects, especially the purchase of 155mm/52-caliber guns and ammunition.
“The MoD cannot afford to blacklist original equipment manufacturers as the move is counterproductive and will adversely affect the weapons program of India,” New Delhi defense analyst Nitin Mehta said.
Orsi Prosecutors Confident
Meanwhile, in Italy last week, a prosecutor asked to fast-track the trial for Giuseppe Orsi, the former Finmeccanica CEO who was arrested in February on suspicion of involvement in bribe-paying connected to the 2010 helicopter deal.
Under the Italian legal system, suspects in investigations are normally given a pretrial hearing by a judge to determine if they should stand trial. But in Orsi’s case, the prosecutor has applied to skip the pretrial hearing and go directly to trial, so sure are they that they have evidence to convict him.
Orsi, who was CEO of AgustaWestland at the time of the helicopter deal, denies wrongdoing.
The request also applies to former AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini, who was arrested in February in connection with the case. ■
Tom Kington in Rome contributed to this report.