Monday, 30 November 2020

The Bengaluru Aeroshow 2013 Musings

Updated: March 2, 2013 3:42 pm

The thought that kept coming to my mind while walking kilometers under the hot sun of the Yelahanka Air Force Station, near Bengaluru (where the 9th International Exhibition on Aerospace, Defence & Civil Aviation was held between February 6 and 10), was what happened 50 years ago on the Himalayan slopes.

India was taken by surprise and treacherously attacked by the People’s Liberation Army and badly thrashed in the NEFA sector as well as in Ladakh. Mao Zedong used the pretext that India would have crossed the McMahon line in the Tawang area to teach Nehru (and India) a lesson.

One of the features of this tragic event was that India did not use its Air Force during the one-month conflict.

Why? Some historians have said that it was because the ‘leaders’ in Delhi feared that Kolkata (Calcutta then) would be bombed; others wrote that the services of the IAF were not utilized in the combats because the ‘leaders’ thought that China, a friend, a brother, would never attack India. The argument did not hold, as even after the attack, the IAF was not used.

The truth is probably that the ‘generals’ in the Army Headquarters (as well as the IV Corps Commander in Tezpur) were so arrogant that they believed that the Indian Army did not need the ‘external aid’ of the Air Force to capture the Thagla ridge. Such foolishness!

We know what happened on October 20 and the following weeks.

While walking from stand to stand at the Aeroshow, I kept reflecting about those dark days and feeling that India has taken a great leap forward since then.

Today, in case of a conflict, the Air Force would certainly make a difference and though both A.K. Antony, the Indian Defence Minister and the IAF boss, Air Chief Marshall N.A.K. Browne denied that the Air Force modernization and build-up was directed at anybody in particular, it is clear who is India’s main potential enemy and in which direction, the defence preparedness needs to be focused.

One of the principal lessons of this Aeroshow is perhaps that India is now a major world power, forcing major foreign armament suppliers to line up to offer their latest gadgets which could make a difference in case of a conflict with China (or even Pakistan); and now, the Air Force would be used.

Before I continue musing, I should mention something which pleasantly surprised me, on reaching the venue. When I applied for a Media Pass for the mega event and sent a scanned copy of my French Passport and my PIO card to the organizers who said that they could not issue the pass without seeing the original documents. I thought to myself, “Oh no, how will I get the pass with crowds trooping to enter the Air Force Station?” I was nevertheless given the cell number of one sergeant ‘who would help me’. On my way to Yelahanka (without the proper pass), I phoned the sergeant who asked my car make and number. He assured: “Don’t worry, Sir, I will wait for you”. A few minutes later, I reached the Gate that he had indicated, and the young officer was waiting for me with my pass; I only had to countersign the scanned copy of my passport. I thought to myself, “Great, that’s efficient organization; that was a good start”.

The rest of the show demonstrated that India is able to organize a mega event in an un-chaotic and efficient manner, handling all the aspects, particularly security in the most professional way.

The ability to organise all the aspects of such international events, is in my view, an important factor which would play a decisive role in case of a conflict; coordination and organisation are two pillars of an assured success.

The organizers had planned for the intense heat, distributing caps and sun cream, but it was nevertheless a tough task to remain stoic under the burning sun, listening to the official speeches of the dignitaries, namely the Defence Minister, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, the Minister of State for Defence, and other senior bureaucrats. I always wonder why Indian speeches are so long, with each speaker, one after the other, reading out the names, designations, titles and decorations of his colleagues on the dais.

I presume that is India, if not Bharat.

As a result, the next day, I was so tanned (read red) that a French delegate asked me if my wife would believe me when I would tell her that I had just attended an air show and not gone gallivanting on some sandy foreign beaches.

The most admirable was Marshal Arjan Singh, 96-years old who heroically sat through the speeches and the air display. Thumbs up to the grand old Marshall!

One of the most exciting items of the inauguration display was the 1930 Tiger Moth trainer with its 2 pilots gracefully waving at the crowd between two loops. I should also mention the incredibly acrobatic Flying Bulls of the Czech Republic, led by a 50 year-plus female pilot; the indigenous Sarang helicopter team flying colorfully painted HAL Dhruv choppers and of, course, the Rafale of Dassault Aviation.

The Indian economic slowdown

One question was on every mind: a few weeks earlier, it was announced that the budget of the Indian armed forces would be slashed by around Rs 10,000 crore in the present annual budget. The news had sent shock waves, particularly to the foreign suppliers.

Media had reported that the Indian defence ministry had decided to focus on purchases that would impact on the armed forces’ operational preparedness, though the Minister had spoken of ‘new ground realities’ and the ‘changing security scenario’.

How would this translate for the defence acquisition in the coming years? Who will decide the prioritization process? What would happen if the economy continues to slow down?

During his press conference (he reached the venue more than one hour late!) the Defence Minister was quick to blame the western economies, but it does not change the problem; India’s GDP growth has now been projected at 5% by the Central Statistics Office for the current fiscal year (though the Finance Ministry is still hoping for 5.5% or an even higher rate), therefore there is no doubt that there will be a cut in all budgets, including defence.

Air Chief Marshall N.A.K. Browne gave some hints about the ‘prioritisation’ of the Indian Air Force; the Air Chief spoke of aircrafts for Special Operations; the Apache choppers (the IAF is in final stages of completing the acquisition process for 22 Boeing AH-64D Apache helicopters at the cost of $1.3 billion.) and the 126 MMRCA from Dassault of France. The Air Chief said that the Government was fully conscious of the need and requirements of the Air Force.

Looking at the list of VIPs present, often walking incognito through the stalls, one understands the importance of India as a market for Defence products. The most impressive delegations (and display of equipment/planes/drones) were no doubt the Israelis, the French, the Russians and Americans (Ambassador Nancy Powell was seen inspecting the massive C-17 bird, one of the largest transport aircraft in the world and visiting the US Pavilion).

On June 15, 2011, India signed an agreement with the US government to acquire 10 C-17 mega transport planes from Boeing. The US company recently delivered a first C-17 at its facility in Long Beach, California for testing.

Though the defence ministry spokesman announced that a senior Chinese delegation from Beijing, led by Major General Zheng Yuanlin (a rising star, recently appointed Assistant Chief of Staff of the PLAAF) was to attend the show, I could not spot them (India snubbed Pakistan after the gruesome beheading of an Indian jawan, last month). I really regret not getting to see them as I would have loved to get an interview.

A.K. Antony, during his press conference, admitted that his Government was aware of the Chinese preparedness on the other side of the Himalayan border: “They are reinforcing infrastructure in a big way… The government of India is bound to modernize its armed forces. It is our duty to strengthen our border by way of putting more infrastructure assets there.”

The Air Chief did not link the modernization of the Air Force to the actions of any particular country. He was not keen to comment on the recently published pictures of the Y-20, an indigenously-developed Chinese heavy transport aircraft, similar in size to the Russian IL-76, but smaller than the C-17. The Y-20 is apparently developed by Xian Aircraft Industry, a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the country’s leading military aircraft maker.

Private vs Public sectors

During the aeroshow, we often heard the on-going debate on the opening of the defence industry to the private sector. Though the Minister assured the media that the indigenization process would continue, many feel that India still lives in the Soviet era where the defence industry has to be owned by the State. Why can’t the private sector enter the defence market was everybody’s questions (except the officials of the Indian government undertakings).

Many have doubts that the two mastodons (HAL and DRDO) can cope with modern requirements. If Boeing, Dassault, Safran, Lockheed-Martin or Rafael of Israel, are able to serve their respective States well, why can’t the Tatas or Reliances do so in India?

The failures of HAL were the talk of the show. The public sector company is simply too large; often wanting to bite off more that it can. Ditto with DRDO, though they even have time to build toilets.

The Kaveri engine for the Tejas is a case in point. The Business Standard recently reported that the Ministry of Defence “will no longer ask French aircraft engine builder SNECMA to help it in resurrecting the indigenous Kaveri jet engine, which has reached a dead end in development”.

Engine manufacturers will now compete in a global tender to partner DRDO for redesigning the Kaveri engine (I understand why, at the Safran/Snecma stand, I was repeatedly told that the ‘expert’ on the Indo-French collaboration had just ‘gone out’).

What I found interesting and promising is that this issue is now being intensely discussed in India.

Mother of all deals

Of particular interest to me was ‘the mother of all deals’, the supply of 126 Rafale fighter planes by Dassault Aviations to the IAF. Before the show, news had circulated that the French company was keen to have a deal with Reliance Industries to help build 108 Rafales in India. A communique had announced that Dassault and Reliance Industries Ltd had signed a partnership in defence and homeland security: “Dassault Aviation, a major player in the global aerospace industry, has entered into an MoU with Reliance Industries, for pursuing strategic opportunities of collaboration in the area of complex manufacturing and support in India.”

During his press conference, AK Antony clarified Dassault could not decide on the quantum of work of HAL in the Rafale contract as the Request for Proposals had clearly laid down the parameters under which the contract for the 126 aircraft would be awarded.

Though Dassault was rather mute during the show, the presence (even though discreet) of its newly appointed chairman, Eric Trappier (he was till last month Executive Vice-President of Dassault’s international business), showed the vital importance of the deal for the French side.

When Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, who visited Paris early January did not seem then in a hurry to sign the deal; he told the press: “We know good French wine takes time to mature and so do good contracts. The contract details are being worked out. A decision has already been taken, just wait a little for the cork to pop and you’ll have some good wine to taste.”

Dassault is perhaps not ready to wait for the wine to mature too long, nor is the Indian Air Force, for which the deal is vital as many of its planes (such as the MIGs 21) are soon due to be phased out.

The financial French newspaper, La Tribune noted that if Dassault’s karma is good, the deal may be signed before the summer, but certainly not in time for the forthcoming visit of President Hollande (February 14 and 15).

The Indian Air Chief as well as the Defence Minister confirmed during their press conference that the file would be sent to the Finance Ministry sometime in April/May and when and if it comes back with favorable notings, the deal may be signed during the following months.

During the show, it appeared that Rafale is already a brand name in India, particularly amongst the connoisseurs. I could not believe my eyes watching so many air force officers or even simple Indian visitors wanting their picture taken with the bi-engine bird in the background.

When I told a young IAF pilot, “it will soon to be your plane”, extra-large grins suddenly appeared on his face. He said he would be proud to fly the Rafale (and visit France for training before that!).

When I asked a French Air Force officer if the Rafale was able to perform in a Himalayan environment, he said that during the selection tests, the plane flew in high altitude and did remarkably well. The main quality of the plane was its polyvalence which includes reconnaissance missions (for example, in Mali these days), air bombings and also air combats (though it was not required in recent conflicts where France was engaged).

During an informal talk with the French Air Chief, General Denis Mercier, I asked him to characterize the Indo-French relations (let us not forget that the President of the French Republic is coming next week); he just said ‘trust’ and quoted the example of the Garuda joint air exercises between France and India. He explained that with very few countries was France so confident to ‘share’ and this translated into extremely meaningful joint exercises.

To come back to China, ‘deterrence’ will be the key word in the future.

When in a few years from now, India will possess a fleet of 126 (and later 189) Rafales, plus the 50 or so ‘modernized’ Mirages 2000, the 150 SU-MKIs and later the marine MK-29 for the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier and perhaps one day (hopefully soon) the indigenous Tejas, India will possess a formidable deterrence tool. No question of 1962 repeating itself.

Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, while recently touring the Lanzhou Military District Command, said that China “must make efforts to expand and deepen military readiness, to promote the acceleration of the development of information technology, and to constantly enhance the combat capability of information systems; this is to ensure that the military troops quickly respond when called upon, are ready to fight when responding, and will win if engaged in a war.”

India has to do the same. It may avoid a war. Deterrence has been an effective tool in the past. There are many other things to add, particularly about the close collaboration with Israel which was unthinkable a few decades ago.

It is however certain that many acquisitions and the level of India’s preparedness will depend a great deal how the country’s economy fares and how much the government is ready to take the help of the private sector to truly modernize the Indian defence forces.

The aeroshow was a good occasion to discuss these issues of national interest.

By Claude Arpi from Bengaluru

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