Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Aero India 2023: Decoded

By Aritra Banerjee

The 2023 edition of Aero India, India’s largest aviation exhibition, ended on Friday, 17 February 2023. Over 200 agreements worth an estimated Rs 80,000 crore were signed during the show. The event drew over 800 exhibitors and representatives from more than 80 countries.

India used the show to display its commitment to self-reliance and pitch indigenous military equipment to interested parties. At the Defence Minister’s Conclave, the Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh, addressed representatives from 27 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Brazil. 

A Measured Russian Presence

Despite being embroiled in a nearly year-long conflict with Ukraine [at the time], Russia maintained its presence at the exhibition with Rosoboronexport, United Aircraft Corporation, Almaz-Antey Air, and Space Defense Corporation.

At the forefront of Rosoboronexport’s exhibits were the fifth-generation Su-57E multirole fighter, Checkmate light tactical aircraft, and IL-76MD-90A(E) military transport aircraft. The Su-35, Su-30, and MiG-35D fighter aircraft, alongside a range of military helicopters like the Ka-226T Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), Ka-52E, Mi-28NE, Mi-171Sh military transport helicopter.

The production of the Ka-226T could be launched under the ‘Make in India’ programme on the premises of the joint venture Indo-Russian Helicopters Limited.

Adding on to the emerging technologies and product offerings from Russia were Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems (C-UAS), and air defence (AD) systems, which were on display. None took to the skies for the aerial demonstration, though. 

Its presence might be subdued, but Russia’s continued investment in cutting-edge military technology is a testament to its commitment to remaining a dominant force in the global defence industry. 

There is a significant demand for Russian helicopters in the Asia Pacific, “There is a growing demand for Ka-52E, Mi-28NE and Mi-171Sh [helicopters] in the Asia-Pacific region,” Rosoboronexport highlighted.  

US Vied Showstopper Spot

The US commanded a dynamic presence at the exhibition, with its largest-ever delegation, impressive aerial demonstrations, and static displays. The debut display of two supersonic fifth-generation fighters – the F-35A Lightning II and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter multirole jets was unmissable. As a symbol of American military might, an F-35 stealth aircraft made a dazzling aerial demonstration during the event. B-1B Lancer bomber made its second visit to the biennial show. Two of these aircraft took flight at the venue. 

Leading defence companies, including Aero Metals Alliance, Boeing, GE Aerospace, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc, and Lockheed Martin, showcased a range of offerings from transport aircraft to multi-mission helicopters.

Lockheed Martin’s display of the F-21 fighter, C-130J transport aircraft, MH-60R “Romeo” multi-mission helicopter, JAVELIN weapon system, and S-92 multirole helicopter were crowd-pullers. 

In early February, the MEA revealed that engine manufacturer General Electric (GE) had applied for a license to manufacture jet engines. If the application receives approval, these powerhouses will fit into the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk2 and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Balancing Powers

The significance of the US’ show of force lies in India’s heavy reliance on Russian military equipment. With Moscow facing Western sanctions due to the conflict in Ukraine, the US has found an excellent opportunity to pivot India away from its dependence on Russia. Given the tensions in the Indo-Pacific, the US remains committed to forging closer ties with its military establishment.

The display, however, offered no indication of whether Washington intends to offer its top-of-the-line equipment– like the F-35– to New Delhi. 

India remains a prominent customer of the US. Chinook and Apache helicopters, M777 lightweight howitzers, and SiG-Sauer rifles from the US are all fairly recent purchases. 

Yet, despite its inclination towards US-made military equipment, the South Asian nation has not shied away from engaging with other major players in the arms industry. Among its significant acquisitions are the Rafale fighters from France and the highly advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. 

As India strives to modernise its military and strengthen its defence posture in a volatile region, its policymakers continue to keep their options open. 

Beyond US-Russia Spectrum

India’s emphasis on diversification and self-reliance is evident. Partnering with various countries’ defence industries is a focus area. 

A delegation of government and military representatives from the UK, led by Minister for Defence Procurement Alex Chalk, pitched a range of equipment and partnerships to the Indian military. Rolls Royce expressed interest in designing and developing future engines for India’s AMCA by sharing intellectual property. 

BAE Systems, on the other hand, announced its intention to collaborate with Bengaluru-based technology group NewSpace Research and Technologies on next-generation unmanned systems and associated technologies.

Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed an agreement with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) to produce the long-range artillery surface-to-surface missile system in India. Meanwhile, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Israel’s Elta Systems Limited inked an agreement for cooperation on future business in Maritime Patrol Radar (MPR) for Indian platforms.

French giant Dassault Aviation showcased the Rafale, its marine version, and the Falcon 2000 aircraft. Safran, another leading French company, signed an agreement with HAL for a work share to form a joint venture for helicopter engine design, development, manufacture, and lifetime support.

Other participants in the event included Sweden’s Saab, which pitched its advanced fighter aircraft Gripen E for India’s multirole fighter aircraft (MRFA) program, and Brazil’s Embraer, which put the C-390 Millennium on display as a potential replacement for the Indian Air Force’s AN-32 transport aircraft. 

New Delhi is keen on capitalising on this interest to boost the indigenous defence ecosystem.

India’s Mega Export Pitch

India is advancing its self-reliance plans, including reserving 75% of its capital budget for domestic procurements in the upcoming fiscal year. During the inaugural ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India aims to increase its defence exports to $5 billion by 2024-25 from the current $1.5 billion.

New Delhi is currently negotiating with several countries, including Argentina and Egypt, to sell its LCA Tejas, the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), and the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. In the future, India also intends to export the indigenous HTT-40 training aircraft, the LUH, and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), alongside the Mk2 version of the LCA Tejas.

Not just established PSUs, but a range of startups at the event showcased niche technologies and innovative solutions for the military. 

Indian startups and established players are poised to offer diverse, innovative solutions. Over 700 Indian companies were in attendance at Aero India 2023.

Avenues To Look Out For

  1. Opportunities For MSMEs: The airshow in Bengaluru presented numerous opportunities for Indian Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). They were able to participate in contract opportunities and technology transfer programs and showcase their products and services to a large audience to gain market visibility and recognition. The event allowed Indian MSMEs to expand their businesses and tap into India’s growing aerospace and defence market internationally.
  2. Drone Market: India has to quickly develop capabilities of remotely operating fixed and rotary-wing aircraft for commercial, military, and relief operations. This includes firefighting capabilities and supply chain management in hostile environments. 
  3. Anti-Drone Market: In the short term, India’s focus areas include developing lasers, radars, and jammers for anti-drone solutions. These technologies have their strengths and weaknesses, and the most effective drone solutions usually employ a combination of lasers, radars, and jammers. The choice between a soft kill and kinetic kill for anti-drone systems depends on various factors, such as the type of drone, the intended target, and the desired outcome. The best solution for a particular anti-drone system will depend on the situation and may involve a combination of soft and kinetic kill methods.
  4. Hybrid Technology: Hybrid helicopters and drones are now ready for commercial production and will give an impetus to Indian aerospace potential.
  5. New Manufacturing Business Model: Airbus’s recent establishment of the C295 manufacturing plant in Vadodara exemplifies a new manufacturing business model for “Make in India” initiatives. It is especially crucial for bolstering the MSMEs in the Indian aerospace manufacturing ecosystem. It could attract technology partners to participate in most “Make in India” programs, with factors such as stability and ease of doing business in the country, the availability of skilled labour, and a supportive ecosystem for technology and innovation playing crucial roles in their decision.

Indian Aerospace Industry: SWOT

The strengths of the Indian industry in aerospace include a strong aerospace engineering talent pool, a growing market space, and support from the Indian government through policies and investment. 

However, a lack of technological development and innovation compared to developed countries, limited market access to international aerospace projects, and a need for more funding and resources for research and development are glaring weaknesses. 

Increased demand for aerospace products and services globally presents great avenues. Growing air traffic in India–evident in more aircraft orders–and expansion of the Indian aerospace industry through joint ventures and partnerships with international companies are good opportunities to be capitalised upon, as well.

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