India starts consultations for new VVIP helicopters for President, PM - The Times of India NEW DELHI: Setting the ball rolling for acquisition of new VVIP helicopters, the defence ministry has written to the cabinet secretary to get all stakeholders on board to decide the future course of action in getting plush and secure rotary rides for the President, PM and other top dignitaries. The defence ministry has "requested" cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth to get the PMO, ministry of home affairs and Special Protection Group (SPG), which provides proximate security to the PM, to begin the joint consultation process with IAF and others on the VVIP helicopters, said sources. "All have to come together to finalize the mandatory operational or technical requirements for the new choppers depending on the latest inputs. The RFI (request for information) and the eventual RFP (request for proposal) can then be floated to international vendors," said a source. The worry is that the process must be kick-started at the earliest because the five Mi-8 helicopters currently with the IAF's elite Communication Squadron, which ferries the President and PM, are fast coming to the end of their operational life. "In fact, the first of these saloon-version Mi-8s is slated for retirement this month. But their operational lives will be extended for a couple of more years, six months at a time. These Mi-8s or the newer Mi-17s can be used as an interim solution. But there is no option but to acquire specially-configured VVIP helicopters," said another source. The VVIP helicopters, after all, need to have all-weather and night flying capabilities, advanced navigation aids and auto-pilot, self-protection anti-missile suites and bullet-proofing, data links and medical evacuation systems, among other things. The cancellation of the 556 million euros deal with AgustaWestland on January 1 has led to mothballing of the three of the 12 AW-101 helicopters already delivered before payments were frozen last year, as was reported by TOI last month. It was way back in August 1999 that IAF had first proposed replacement of the Mi-8s due to their inability to operate in night and adverse weather conditions as well as at altitudes beyond 2,000 metres. The long-winded selection process, with technical parameters being controversially "tweaked" midway to broaden the competition, finally led to the Rs 3,546 crore deal being inked with AgustaWestland, the UK-based subsidiary of Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica, in February 2010. The three-engine AW-101s defeated American Sikorsky's S-92 Superhawks in the extensive field trials, overseen by both IAF and SPG, because the latter were found "non-compliant" with respect to the missile approach warning system, service-ceiling of 4.5-km, the drift-down altitude and hover out-of-ground effect. Other concerns of the SPG were that the helicopters have "a high tail boom" to allow cars to come right next to the rear exit staircase without "exposing" VVIPs to a threat from anyone in the vicinity, additional transit range, better crash-worthiness and armour protection. "With advances in technology, new operational requirements will now have to be drawn," said the source.