New Delhi: India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has made what it claims are crucial arrests related to allegations that former defence minister, George Fernandes, received kickbacks in the purchase of Israeli Barak sea-based air-defence systems in 2000 from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
In a widely publicised raid the CBI arrested leading arms dealer Suresh Nanda along with his son, Sanjeev Nanda, and senior income tax officer Ashutosh Verma on 8 March and said that incriminating documents related to the Barak investigations had been recovered.
The CBI has also quizzed former naval chief, Admiral Sushil Kumar.
According to defence ministry sources, the Barak missile system was short-listed by the Indian Navy in 1994 with the purchase of the first batch of seven batteries approved by the Cabinet in 1996. This was followed by approval for the purchase of another $260 million worth of missiles in 2000, while Fernandes was defence minister. The total deal with Israeli companies, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael, was eventually worth Rs1,160-crore.
The missile systems were mounted on Indian warships, including the sole aircraft carrier, INS Viraat. They are used to protect warships from anti-ship missiles.
Even as the arrests gather publicity, the Indian Navy has expressed satisfaction with the performance of the Barak missile. Navy chief, Adm. Sureesh Mehta, said 10 March that the Barak missiles have "proved themselves."
Navy officials have pointed out that the Barak was purchased on an urgent basis because the locally developed Trishul surface-to-air system was way behind schedule and was yet still to be cleared for induction by the Indian Navy at that point of time.
The Navy is justifiably worried that the controversy may hold up fresh supplies of these missiles that are installed on its frontline warships.
"We are very happy with the Barak systems. We have had 13 firings of the Barak missiles against incoming surface-to-surface missiles. Except for the first test, the rest were direct hits," said Adm Mehta on Monday.
Though at present the Navy 'does not have a shortage' of Barak missiles, Admiral Mehta said, "...we need to buy some more missiles in the normal course of procurement...that is what is held up at this point."
Admiral Mehta said probes should 'not come in the way' of procurement of weapon systems, which are desperately needed by the armed forces.
Here, it may be useful to remember the Bofors howitzer scandal of the late-1980s, which derailed the Indian Army's artillery modernisation programme.
India has wide ranging defence projects with Israel, which reportedly include a huge Rs10,000-crore upgrade project to develop an advanced medium-range surface-to-air missile system capable of detecting and destroying hostile aircraft, missiles and drones at a range of 70-km.
It is being given to understand that the project may actually be an extension of an ongoing DRDO-IAI project, launched in January 2006 at a cost of $480 million, to develop a supersonic 60-km Barak NG (new-generation) missile defence system for Navy.
What is currently installed on 10-11 frontline Indian warships is the nine-km-range, Barak-I. It has been installed on aircraft carrier INS Viraat, destroyer INS Mysore and guided missile frigate INS Ganga amongst others.