Illogical to shift air show from B'luru to Goa

The just concluded biennial aerospace event in Bengaluru brought ripples of joy and enthusiasm among the local populace.

Vehicular traffic heading towards the Yelahanka airport, the venue of the event, threatened to clog the roads and despite abundant police presence, vehicles stopped on the section of the highway adjacent to the airport to catch a glimpse of aircraft in the air or on ground.

The show, 11th in its series, brought delight and pleasure to Bengalureans. Of course, for the official exhibitors who had displayed their wares, aircraft or infographics in the exhibition area, it was pure business. Jointly organised by the Ministry of Defence and the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Aero India attracted 270 Indian enterprises and 279 foreign exhibitors from 51 countries (these populated 444 stalls in the generous exhibition halls and chalets).

There was a definite underpinning of Make in India in the show’s conduct although the substantial push provided to the Make in India agenda in the previous (2015) edition by the presence and inaugural address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was absent this time.

The customary seminar on the sidelines of the show dwelt on Make in India opportunities in aerospace and defence sectors while Indian companies and PSUs loudly paraded aerospace wares with Make in India content. However, the much anticipated strategic partners’ chapter of the Defence Procurement Procedure 2016 remained elusive and hopes of it being announced on the first day by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar were belied, much to the disappointment of analysts and private sector companies.

On the first day of the show, an Embraer 145 turboprop aircraft with DRDO integration into an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft was handed over to the IAF. The HAL announced production of a new Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) possibly in the new facility coming up in Tumakuru. The question of what is happening to the Kamov-226T manufacturing line that was to come up at the Tumakuru setup remained unanswered through the event.

The HAL used the event as an opportunity to flaunt the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, the HTT-40 turboprop trainer, and the Advanced Hawk Trainer aircraft Hawk-I, a joint development with British Aerospace. The licence-built Sukhoi Su-30 MKI and the just contracted-for Dassault Rafale were also shown off at the show.

The Saab Grippen and the Lockheed Martin F 16 were present (and flown to appreciative audiences) so as to pursue the Make in India grail. Israel, a substantive aerospace and defence partner for India had, in the Israeli pavilion, the presence of 11 Israeli companies including IAI (the company that provided the wherewithal to convert an IL-76 into an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft for use by the IAF).

The Airbus Helicopters and Bell Helicopters were busy chasing the twin engine helicopter requirement of the Indian Navy. Several agreements and MoUs (not business deals), projected as Make in India, were signed, the prominent ones being Thales UK signing up with Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) to assess opportunities for transfer of technology of the STARStreak man-portable surface-to-air missile system, Euro­pean group MBDA setting up a joint venture with Larsen & Toubro aimed at exploring the missile space for opportunities.

Raytheon of the US signed an MoU with a subsidiary of Tata Group to jointly produce the Stinger ground-to-air missile parts in India while IAI signed an MoU with Kalyani Strategic Systems Limited to form a joint venture in India. The sole business deal to be signed was between Saab subsidiary Saab Grintek Defence and HAL’s Avionics Division for transfer of technology for maintenance (in India) of Saab’s Integrated Defensive Aids Suite system for $8.5 million.

Disconcerting move

As had happened at the end of the 2015 show, there were some reports of the defen­ce minister hinting that the venue for the next show could be Goa (the last DefExpo was also shifted from its traditional home ground of Delhi to Goa). While the minister was perhaps playing to his domestic (state) audience, what was disconcerting was that he used the platform of Aero India for this.

A shift away from Bengaluru would be a rearward step. Bengaluru — where several aeronautical organisations are situated — was the original choice of the show and it was based on due diligence by the Defence Ministry and the IAF. And there is no change in the factors that went into making that decision then.

Moreover, an enormous amount of money has been spent over the years on building the infrastructure to support the event; this includes an Air Display Viewing Area and an underpass under the Bellary Road to permit connectivity between the parking area and the show venue. Some of the expenditure that has been incurred is not attributed to the show but has been used from the IAF budget. Reproducing all that has already been built in Bengaluru progressively over the years since 1996 would be inanely profligate.

Indeed, a rationale can be reasoned out for a possible merger of the two air shows India hosts biennially — the predominantly military-defence Aero India show organised by the Ministry of Defence in Bengaluru every odd-numbered year, and the civilian India Aviation show organised by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in Hyderabad every even-numbered year. There is some sort of a rivalry involved between the two ministries without due consideration to the fact that India can ill-afford to have two shows.

Combining the two would prove beneficial for the participants also as the majority of the exhibitors are civilian-military aerospace companies which thus end up dividing their show budget between the two events in India. Perhaps, it is time for the Prime Ministers’ Office to step in and take a view, detached from the inter-ministry wrangling.

(The writer is a former Senior Research Fellow of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)

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