New Delhi: Defence Minister AK Antony said Tuesday the army was probing at the "highest level" the reported leak of a secret report on the field trials of ultralight artillery guns that India is buying from the US and assured that "nobody will be able to manipulate" the defence procurement process.
"The army has ordered an inquiry at the highest level into the leak of the trial report on artillery gun procurement. Nobody will be able to manipulate our procurement process, I can tell you," Antony told reporters here on the sidelines of a Defence ministry function.
The field trials of the American howitzer were carried in the hilly terrain of Leh, Sikkim and the desert areas in Rajasthan, as also in the plains. The procurement has run into a controversy after some pages of the secret trial report came out in the open.
India had last year decided to buy the M777 howitzers worth $647 million in view of the urgent requirements of the army for additional 155mm guns.
The M777 gun, manufactured by BAE systems, was in competition for the army`s tender against Singapore Technologies` Pegasus howitzers.
Since the Singapore company had landed in trouble after it was mentioned in a CBI chargesheet against former Ordnance Factories Board director general Sudipto Ghosh last year, the tender process could not be taken forward due to a single vendor situation, forcing the government to buy the guns through the foreign military sales route from the US.
The army needs these ultralight howitzers for deployment in high altitude, mountain terrain bordering China and Pakistan under its artillery modernisation programme worth Rs.20,000 crore.
Antony said there were a lot of competition for Indian defence deals and that calls for the ministry and the services to be careful in the procurement process.
But whenever there were leaks of secret procurement reports or mistakes in the process, the ministry takes proper action to ensure transparency at every stage of the tendering process.
"The main thing is, now a days there is a lot of competition. We have to be very, very careful. But whenever there is something like any leak or any mistake, these are always taken care of. We are taking proper action always," he said when asked about the fixing of responsibility in such cases.
Giving example of the 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender worth $10.4 billion, in which the secret papers regarding the offsets commitment of the six competing firms were lost and later found late last December, Antony said all inquiries by the defence ministry and the Indian Air Force (IAF) had concluded that the incident would not impact the contract itself.
Hence the go ahead was given for the procurement process to continue and be completed within a few months, he added.
"All the inquiry reports -- air force and all others -- have said that there is nothing wrong in that (missing file). Nothing is there to compromise the procurement. Therefore, on the recommendation of air force and others, we have again started the process of procurement. I am sure we will be able to complete it in a few months," he said.
The defence minister added: "Like the MMRCA procurement process that has again started after going through all the probe reports after everybody certified that we can proceed...at every stage there will be transparency. At every stage all will be informed what is happening. Nobody wll be able to manipulate, there is a pucca (perfect) system."
Asked why most procurements for the armed forces were being done through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route insted of a multi-vendor tender process, Antony said global tendering was the general rule and the FMS applied only to equipment purchased from the US that were urgently needed by the services.
"Maximum procurement is through multi-vendor (tendering process). In a few cases, whenever services feel they need some equipment at the earliest, they recommend it after examining the whole thing. Only then, we clear (the purchases) through FMS. FMS is not the general rule. General rule is multi-vendor," he said.