India’s secret force of Tibetans, the SFF (Special Frontier Force), raised after the 1962 border conflict with China, has been without parachutes for nearly two years on the suspicion that senior officers tried to take kickbacks.
The SFF, sometimes also referred to as Establishment-22, has been a part of India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, and was originally raised to play a role behind enemy lines in China in the event of a war.
Raised with the help of the CIA post-1962, it is a Special Forces unit almost the size of an army division and headed by a Major General on deputation. At the time of the procurement it was headed by Major General Dalbir Singh who has subsequently moved on to the North-East on promotion to command an army Corps. Parachutes are essential equipment for the SFF and are critical to the constant training and operations that the SFF undertakes on a regular basis.
Last year the SFF began the process to procure new parachutes since the ones in stock had either been used for the mandated 100 jumps or had lived their shelf life of 15 years. By May 2011 the tenders were sent out using the usual procedure that R&AW uses to mask its purchases, by using the front of a public sector undertaking that is under a different Union ministry.
The SFF put in a major criterion to select the parachutes. Any company that was bidding for the tender should have supplied parachutes to its armed forces. They also added another clause mandating that the parachutes must have been used by the military for at least five years to establish a proven track record. The SFF also ensured that the parachutes had to match the aircraft from which they would be deployed. So for any parachutes that were to be used for the Russian IL-76 aircraft, the parachutes had to be from an erstwhile “Warsaw Pact” country.
This ensured that two companies from Ukraine emerged as the front-runners for a supply of 150 parachutes for one batch, while a Spanish company emerged as the front-runner for a western aircraft that is currently used by the SFFF. Both put together, the initial purchase was to be of 300 parachutes followed by larger orders to equip the whole force. Each parachute costs about Rs1.25 lakh.
However, once the user trials began, senior officers noticed a major anomaly in the samples sent across by the two Ukranian companies. The samples, sources told DNA, were matching sequentially. “We noticed that if the serial number was 514 in one parachute, the other sample was 515. How was that possible if two separate manufacturers had sent us separate random samples? Even the lettering was the same which meant they were sent from the same manufacturer,” a senior officer from R&AW, familiar with the case, told DNA.
The anomaly was noticed by one of the senior army officers on deputation to the SFF. According to sources in R&AW, Col Arvind Sharma, a special forces officer who was from the army’s elite 2 Para (Special Forces) had noticed this and immediately put it on record in his report. As soon as he recorded this, the procurement came to a grinding halt. “He was asked on several occasions to either withdraw or change his report but he refused. Sources say he was verbally asked on several occasions to withdraw his report. Finally, he was sent back to the army because he refused to do so,” sources said.
While Col Sharma was moved out, his report remained on record. Being a paratrooper himself, Col Sharma refused to budge. He felt the parachutes were being pushed through for kickbacks. This could lead to procurement of parachutes of suspect quality because kickbacks were to exchange hands as soon as the deal was signed. With soldiers jumping off at 30,000 ft, this would be a matter of life and death. Sharma also suspected that both companies were probably a single entity which had been shown to be different on paper to avoid a single-bidder scenario.
But even with Col Sharma out of the way, the SFF couldn’t go ahead with the procurement and it continues to be held in abeyance. No inquiries were constituted and the matter was never investigated by an independent agency like the CBI. With R&AW not being subjected to any external audit by the CAG or any oversight, the issue was given a quiet burial while the SFF continues to operate without parachutes.