AERO INDIA 2011 Heavy Lobbying For The Lucrative Mmrca
The five-day eighth edition of Aero India 2011 at the IT city of Bengaluru saw what can probably be rated as the heaviest lobbying by the six aircraft companies in the race for what is probably rated as the “mother of all deals,” which is the purchase of 126 Multirole Medium Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) to the tune of about US$10 billion to strengthen the virtually depleting strength of the world’s fourth-largest air force—Indian Air Force.
The show saw high-level delegations descending on the garden city of the country spearheaded by the American delegation led by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke who pitched hard for American companies specially Lockheed Martin’s F-16 which along with another American rival Boeing (F/A-18 Super Hornet), French Rafale, Swedish SAAB/BAE (JAS-39 Gripen NG), Russian Rosonboronexport (MIG-29OVT/MIG-35).
In fact, the American lobby was indeed very strong and the show saw the American Ambassador to India Mr Timothy Roemer flying in a Lockheed Martin F-16, clearly a strong indication where possibly Washington was focussed on though the final selection of vendor is yet to be decided.
However, just ahead of the Aero India, the government unveiled its new Defence Procurement Policy 2011 which laid down the offset clause for the aviation sector stating: “The list of eligible offsets will now cover most aspects of civil aerospace, including aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, air frames, air engines, aircraft components, avionics, aircraft design and engineering services, aircraft material, technical publications, flying training institutions and technical training institutions.”
Under offset rule, all foreign defence vendors, who win contracts over Rs 300 crore, have to reinvest 30 per cent of it in Indian industries.
So, here lies the catch specially for the American companies in the race for the MMRCA and when the deal which is likely to be finalised by September as stated by the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Would these be ready to invest this in offsets?
But, the Air Chief did sound a note of caution in that those left out of the race may seek recourse of going to the Central Vigilance Commission raking up the issue of corruption and what adds more to this view is that such a move could derail the process of modernisation of defence deals considering the growing sensitivity of the UPA government to the issue of corruption.
The companies not only pitched for their products but as one scribe who has been a regular at these shows observed “they even took scribes for a ride,” referring to the number of scribes who were taken aboard the aircraft of these companies as also stars of the celluloid and sports worlds such as Shahid Kapoor and the Captain of the Indian cricket team to the upcoming World Cup Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
But, the Defence Minister Mr AK Antony though often taken to be soft and a person with a clean image sent a rather strong and loud message to all those in the race for the MMRCA that “there would be no political pressure on it and it would be on merit,” while replying to a rather tricky question by a foreign correspondent that isn’t it now payback time for India apparently referring to the Obama government and its predecessor Bush having removed all obstacles for further improving Indo-US ties in the field of defence cooperation.
Apart from the lobbying by the aircraft companies, which almost daily ensured interaction with the media, they also put on display their products at the show organised by the Ministry of Defence in conjunction with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which had three distinct sections—exhibition, static display and flying display.
Prior to the show, there was apprehension that the major problems could be the menace of birds and considering that there was a massive garbage dump close to the airfield where the aero display shows were to be held.
“With expensive flying machines doing aerobatics close to the ground, ensuring incident-free operations was foremost on the priority list,” said Chief Operations Officer at Air Force Station, Yelahanka, Wg Cdr ZA Gafoor. “We began taking proactive measures to ensure bird menace was minimal. The coordination process with various agencies began nearly three months ahead of the event,” he said.
As part of the measures taken to ensure that the five-day show from February 9 to 13 goes off smoothly included netting of open fish ponds, shutting down of butcheries in the vicinity of the airfield, having a police post at the sites where chicken and meat wastes are dumped helped contain bird activity, vineyard fire that was triggered close to the airfield was certainly not expected. These attracted birds but the fire was doused out with IAF fire tenders.
Among other measures to ensure safe operations included drawing a ‘fall line’, a demarcating line drawn on the Flight Display Director’s console that helped deduce if an aircraft descended below the safe height margin of 500 feet above ground during air show, primarily for safety considerations. Exception was, however, made for the Red Bulls aerobatics team that was allowed to descend to 100 feet. No violations were reported during the entire air display.
With Bengaluru being one of the targets for terrorist strikes, having already experienced terrorist attacks, the authorities did not want to leave anything to chance. “We issued three lakh RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identity Device) and still could not meet all the demand,” Wing Cdr MD Singh, Joint Director, Defence Exhibition Organisation, said on the huge demand for passes to the show. The event went off smoothly without any problem or mishap even on the weekend days that drew the maximum crowd.
Given the increasing popularity of the show that offers serious business opportunities and platform to forge partnerships there were nearly 75,000 business visitors and around 200 business-to-business meetings.
The first three days of the show were primarily meant for business and it was indeed filled with media meetings and other business activities and as Secretary, Defence Production, Mr Raj Kumar Singh said: “These shows provide a venue, a platform where different companies from all over the world can get together, find out about each other, talk to each other and then preferably initiate partnership and initiate business. And what encourages us is the fact that countries all over the world are finding it as a desirable venue and that is why the international participation has increased so much. This will be an opportunity for the foreign companies to meet each other and our companies. This year, the international participation is larger than what it was before.”
After the business meetings, the weekend saw large crowds at the venue to see the flight displays of some of the leading Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft of the world and aerobatics by IAF Surya Kirans, Sarang and debutant Red Bulls. A total of 51 aircraft participated in the static and other aerial displays during the show.
“We got excellent cooperation from the state government administration, the Karnataka police, IAF and various other stake holders,” Joint Secretary (Export) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Mr. Satyajit Rajan said on the show and referring to the role by various organisations that helped make the show a success.
Though Russia’s MIG-35 pulled out of the show a week ahead of it which fuelled speculation among defence experts and critics about the aircraft being in the race for the MMRCA, but, Russian delegations visiting Aero India 2011 confirmed that though their contender for the MMRCA deal, MiG-35, was the only one from the six contenders to have pulled out from the air show, the MMRCA selection committee members as well as defence experts were witness to a series of demonstrations by MiG-35 which also carried out extreme manoeuvres in Indian as well as in Russian conditions.
According to Mikhail Pogosyan, General Director of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), MiG-35 has already conducted modifications as per requirement of the Indian Air Force (IAF), and Russia is ready for technology transfer as per Indian wishes.
Meanwhile, PV Deshmukh, Managing Director, MiG division, HAL, said even as far as FGFA programme was concerned, there would be no problems about technology transfers with the Russians.
While most of the contenders for the MMRCA deal were ready to go for technology transfer, there is indeed apprehension about the American companies who it is felt in defence circles may lay down conditions as far as this issue was concerned.
So, the indication though it is still in the realm of speculation is that the front runners for the MMRCA are Euro fighter and SAAB.
By Sri Krishna