Showcasing air power

AERO INDIA 2017 : Aerospace is the dominant technology and if India aspires to have regional clout, it needs to become a major aerospace power.

Aero India is back again with its 11th edition to showcase the might of airpower to the people who gather across the country and elsewhere. Airpower or aerospace power is an amalgam of a country’s aeronautics industry, R&D capabilities, military and civil aircraft, airports and pilots.

Western industrial nations possess consistent advantage in airpower since the inception of the mechanised flight in 1903. Germany, Britain, US, former Soviet Union, Japan, France and Italy over the last century have employed airpower decisively to their advantage. However, India never used the Indian Air Force (IAF) as an instrument of national power in the 1962 conflict against China because of the lack of air-mindedness of its political and military leadership.

In the post-Second World War period, which coincided with the Cold War phase in international politics, several developing nations have used aircraft that were developed by one or more of these industrial nations to become the mainstay of their air power in their limited wars or military actions within their regions.

Air shows are trade promotion events to showcase military fighter and transport aircraft, avionics and allied systems to potential client nations. It is a public event where pilots display their flying skills and the capabilities of their aircraft to spectators, usually through aerobatic displays which infuse a sense of nationalism and ‘air-mindedness’ among people. For the layman, these displays are simply exciting displays of manoeuvres and formation flying.

But for professionals and enthusiasts, these displays form critical demonstrations of precise manoeuvres that showcase the operational capabilities and potential of these aerial platforms. Air shows also become avenues to gauge the potential for business. Also there are several aircraft displayed/parked on the ground, which are known "static air shows". Besides, the many exhibitions of technologies, products, and related maintenance, logistical and training information for interested customers, militaries, industries, and national teams.

Air shows serve to create awareness among the citizenry about aviation, aerospace technologies, and military and civil uses of airpower, and show case sophisticated systems. In a country like India where scientists, students and engineers lack adequate exposure to state-of-the-art aerospace technologies, an air show facilitates to bridge the gaps and indirectly point the aeronautics community to formulate proper policies in order to ramp up its aerospace industry.

Another aspect of air shows is to provide a platform for aerospace industry across geographies, especially in the post Cold War period, to meet each other and renew relationships. It is also a forum for military and political leaders to make announcements about alliances and acquisitions that have taken some shape, besides get together socially.

Air Chief Marshal N C Suri (rtd), soon after retirement, organised the first air show in 1993 at the Air Force Station Yelahanka, (AFSY) which was a privately managed event. Thereafter, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) saw potential in the ev­ent and took the lead to organise the second air show under its auspices in 1996.

The AFSY was again chosen as the venue for the 1996 air show and continues since then. During the air show, the AFSY acquires the atmosphere of carnival with people from different nationalities visible everywhere. The many foreign aeronautics manufacturers/ vendors from across the globe only add to the international flavour of Bengaluru.

The Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), as part of the Department of Defence Production and Supplies, along with other defence public sector undertakings like Bharat Electronics Ltd and Bharat Earth Movers Ltd, supported the MoD as main participants of the event in 1996. The city, as the aerospace capital of the country, is also home to the IAF’s HQ Training Command, Aircraft Systems &Testing Establishment and Software Development Institute, besides the Air Force Technical College, Jalahalli, and almost a dozen aeronautics related Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratories, makes it an ideal choice to host the air show. Each of these organisations is involved with the air show in their spheres of specialisation.

Latest technologies

The capability of a country’s aerospace infrastructure, especially its R&D and industry to absorb latest technologies is critical on the path to progress. Today, whether or not a country can produce the fifth generation fighter would determine the degree of accomplishment of its industry. Pakistan has evolved, in partnership with China, significant aerospace capability to meet its requirements practically by eschewing ambitions for design and development of full platform.

Given its lack of major industrial capability, it has focused on harnessing Chinese support to develop its JF-17 fighter aircraft rapidly and induct it operationally, in stark contrast to India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). China has leapfrogged in a major way and now has an aerospace industry at par with the industry leaders like UK and France.

India developed its aeronautics industry with the establishment of HAL which has made some strides in development of military aircraft. However, the country lost two decades through the 1970s and 1980s when the government only procured fighter and transport aircraft from the former Soviet Union. During these ‘lost decades’ in aeronautical development, HAL did not design or develop any aircraft. Thereafter, the LCA project took shape in 1986-87 and undergoing flight trials that is yet to be inducted into IAF squadron service.

Also the country’s regional security environment with hostile neighbours has particularly spurred the demand for military fighter and transport aircraft. In the 21st century, aerospace, with underlying ICT, is the dominant technology and if India aspires to truly be a regional power, it needs to become a major aerospace power. This can only evolve from a mass technological base which the developing nations strive to build in collaboration with industrialised nations.

The Aero India is a small step towards development of such a technological base through collaboration with aeronautically advanced industrial nations.

(Matheshwaran is a former test pilot and Chengappa is professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru)

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