The military-corruption complex

I have been quietly amused by the pother over the AgustaWestland helicopter scam, as though bribes were paid because the government exercised its choice in favour of that company and someone "tweaked" the requirements to limit the choice. This shows a lack of understanding of corruption in defence. This case (like others before it) will follow a predictable course: investigators will earn junkets to Rome, honest reputations will be damaged, major procurements will halt and procedures made even more tortuous and centralised. Meanwhile, rent-seeking, like water, will seek new outlets.

How we squander each opportunity for systemic reform by opting for the short-term excitement of hunting the corrupt! We so easily overlook two cardinal factors. First, in our defence procurements, most bribes are paid not for choosing X over Y but for simply proceeding with the procurement process and crossing the hurdles placed. The choice of vendor is generally made on reasonably strong professional grounds and merit is almost never sacrificed, because it is well established that whoever is selected will pay. Second, in a system where responsibility for a decision is so widely dispersed, the big fish invariably escape and small fish are caught for all the wrong reasons.

In this case, there appear to be two red herrings. First, that money was paid for tweaking the requirements and much is being made of who tweaked the requirements, and when. This does not sound right. Money is normally paid for restricting competition and tailoring specifications to favour a particular vendor, not for expanding it and allowing more vendors to compete. While being given a chance to compete may command a price, it does not guarantee eventual success, particularly when AgustaWestland's competitors may have had an edge in terms of capacity to pay bribes.

The second red herring is to draw attention to the role played by Air Marshal Tyagi and his relatives. Quite apart from the fairly convincing denial offered by Julie Tyagi and the former air chief, this was not an air force related procurement, where the air chief would have had a prominent role. This was a civilian requirement and the air force played, at best, the role of technical advisor to facilitate the SPG in meeting its requirements. In any procurement process, the determining role in laying down specifications (GSQRs) or in tailoring processes to benefit favourites is that of the buyer, not of those giving technical advice. Why should any payment be made to someone whose role was so peripheral?

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