As Modi readies to get VVIP Boeing jets, remembering a Chinese ‘spy scandal’

The 2 Boeing-777 for VVIP transport will arrive in India by September-end

Boeing 777 BBJ The business jet version of the Boeing 777-300ER | Boeing

The Hindustan Times reported on Thursday that two customised Boeing-777 jets—meant to carry the prime minister, president and vice-president—will reach India by the end of September. The publication reported that the first Boeing-777 will reach by August-end, followed by the second one a month later.

These aircraft were purchased by the government from Air India, which operated them for less than three years. Last year, the US government approved a $190 million contract to upgrade these jets with missile-defence systems to protect them from both radar-guided and infra-red-guided (also known as heat-seeking) missiles. The aircraft are being converted to VVIP configuration at a Boeing facility in Dallas.

The Boeing-777 will be equipped with conference rooms, extensive communication equipment and would have the range to fly from India to the US without landing for refuelling. Referred to as 'Air India One', the two Boeing-777 jets will replace Boeing-747 jets of Air India that were being used for transporting the three senior-most officials on overseas trips.

Boeing has sold VVIP jets to many countries, including, most well known of all, the Boeing-747 that uses the 'Air Force One' call sign when carrying the US president. In 2015, the US Air Force selected an upgraded version of the Boeing-747 as the next presidential aircraft.

Less well-known is the fact that a Boeing VVIP jet was once embroiled in a scandal. In January 2002, media outlets reported that China had found listening devices on a Boeing-767 aircraft that had been customised for transporting then Chinese president Jiang Zemin. China had purchased the Boeing-767 aircraft in June 2000 for $120 million; the aircraft was originally meant for a Chinese airline. The aircraft was customised by US companies in San Antonio.

At the time, The Washington Post reported, "The Chinese source said that, to date, 27 listening devices had been found, including devices in the presidential bathroom and in the headboard of the presidential bed." The publication quoted officials as saying the devices were highly sophisticated and they "had to be triggered by a satellite communication".

At the time, China detained around 20 officials of its air force who were involved in negotiations for the Boeing-767 VVIP jet. The Chinese government reportedly sold off the jet for passenger use.

In 2003, The New York Times reported the US National Security Agency had masterminded the bugging of the Boeing-767. “The National Security Agency, the supersecret eavesdropping agency, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence organizations, led an operation to plant bugs in a Boeing-767 used by the president of China while it was in the United States for refitting,” The New York Times reported.

However, China did not give much publicity to the scandal and has continued to use Boeing aircraft for VVIP use. Current President Xi Jinping, for instance, uses a Boeing-747 of Air China for some international trips.