Saturday, December 10th, 2022 01:07:31

Military Exhibitions and National Power : DefExpo 2022 must embed realism into symbolism

By Deba R Mohanty
Updated: October 13, 2022 10:16 am

12th edition of DefExpo 2022, India’s premier defence exhibition on land, naval and homeland security systems, will be held in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, from 18 to 22 October 2022. Covered over 80,000 square meter space, the event will attract 3000 plus high-level delegates from 70 countries and participation from close to 1,000 exhibitors (filled with Indian and Indian-led joint venture companies) with a projected visitor participation of 15,00,000. In addition to product displays and live demonstrations, it will also see a large number of seminars and brainstorming sessions as well as meetings between delegates, exhibitors and government representatives. ‘Path to Pride’ has been the designated theme of this grand event, which otherwise reflects an attempt at meeting much desired strategic objective of Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) in defence.

Military exhibitions organized by big or aspiring powers around the world denote the following: a) projection / display of military products and services by producers  for use by domestic armed forces; b) expression of intent for follow-on orders for existing buyers and exploration of new buyers; c) display of newer products for current as well as future requirements by armed forces; d) and last but not the least, a larger assessment of military technologies in different categories through exchange of ideas among military, scientific, military-industrial, academic and state decision-making communities. While aspects of military production, R&D and markets are largely diffused into private or government ownerships, depending on the types of governments (like democratic or semi-democratic or authoritarian), the state still acts as the key actor in military power universe and by extension, international relations, for the very simple reason that possession, acquisition and associated forms of military trade fall under the exclusive domains of the state. It is thus not surprising that matters – military-industrial or technological – are more about national and international politics than pure military or military-industrial or science and technology domains.

Military exhibitions, at least since the late 19th century, have had a profound impact by military producers on state decision-making entities. The legends of Sir Basil Zaharoff, the celebrated arms salesman for Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company, skillfully manipulating the exhibition crowd in favour of his product against a much superior Maxim gun in 1888. Military exhibitions continued to flourish till the onset of the First World War, after which arms industries, largely owned by private business houses, were nationalized in many countries in the world. Inter-war period between 1919 and 1945 witnessed a pathetic display of state inabilities in managing arms industries. This was primarily because of the intricate nature of arms industrial dynamics – capital intensive, long gestation period, excessive bureaucratic control and more failure than success records in military technologies. Post-War arms industrial scenario thus re-converted into pre-World War model of private ownerships, albeit with reasonable state control in Western centres, while state ownership continued in many countries like USSR, China and India, among others. Arms industrial dynamics have had witnessed several twists and turns since the end of the War.

Dynamics like technological advancements across military spectrums and industrial precisions, along with national security considerations and geo-political necessities have shaped the post-Cold War military industrial scenario in profound ways. Military market has become intensely competitive with major suppliers striving to retain their market positions; newer suppliers emerging at least in the Tier-II categories; dominant countries still grappling to their leadership positions in military technologies; and aspiring powers engaged in serious reforms exercises to improve their military industrial complexes. It is in this context that all types of military and dual-use exhibitions like DefExpo, Aero Show, Wings India (civil aviation), Homeland Security Expo, Drone International Expo, Bengaluru Space Expo ad others must be contextualized within the realms of emerging global geo-politics, national security and military power.

While Indian military scientific and industrial complex had been under exclusive state control since independence, it has witnessed a series of reforms in the last twenty odd years, whose cumulative impacts as well as further directions will shape its destiny in future. It is interesting to point here that while the major centres of arms production in the West were moving from state control into private hands, the opposite happened in India during its formative years during late 1940s. Since then, for subsequent decades, India embarked on an ambitious military industrial base with state owned production and R&D entities with a private support base at the lowest spectrum for supply of non-critical component and support services. As state-led military, civil , scientific and industrial bureaucratic structures took deeper roots, results were there for all to see – deficient production capacities, limited R&D efforts, administrative and structural constraints and resource crunch have led to undesirable import dependency situations. It is only in the last twenty years that attempts have been made to reverse the situation.

It is interesting to note here that DefExpo commenced (1998) roughly alongside India’s second wave of reforms (in 2001) in defence sector. This means, dynamics of defence production and procurement reforms have impinged dynamics of military exhibitions in many ways. The number of exhibitors and participating companies in DefExpo witnessed a cumulative 550 percent increase between 1999 and 2016 – while 194 companies participated in the first DefExpo in 1999, the number increased to close to 1,100 in 2016 (9th DefExpo, held in Goa). Unlike Aero India, DefExpo has also changed its venues from PragatiMaidan in Delhi to important cities like Chennai, Lucknow and Gandhinagar. It may not be a mere coincidence as cities like Chennai and Lucknow are projected nerve centres of two ambitious military industrial corridors, while industrial cities in Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telengana, Tamil Nadu are known military industrial centres.

DefExpo and Aero India have witnessed spectacular spurt in participation of large foreign companies, especially since 2004-05, which is attributable, among others, to India’s growing procurement budgets and large procurement orders for armed forces. One remembers the kind of commotion foreign arms companies executives used to create during whole period of now scrapped 126 fighter aircraft tender between 2004 and 2016 in Aero Shows and other exhibitions. Now that India’s defence budget has remained largely stagnant for the past six years or so and with emphases on indigenization of products and more tender awards for Indian companies, military exhibitions have of late witnessed lesser enthusiasm from foreign companies, while participation of large, medium, small and micro companies, including startups have increased manifold. Again, no coincidence, but simply a result of changing national preferences toward Atmanirbharta.

Military diplomacy and R&D-academia-industrial exchanges are two other areas that are likely to gain more prominence in DefExpo and beyond. ‘India-Africa Defence Dialogue’ and ‘IOR + Defence Ministers Conclave’ will be highlights of the DefExpo 2022, with possible strategic military-diplomatic underpinnings of India’s attempts to enter lucrative African arms market. A mini DefExpo was organized by India in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in late May 2022, where large Indian companies like HAL, BEL, GRSE, L&T, Tata Advanced Systems, Bharat Forge and others had participated. Interesting to note here that a promising unlisted Indian drone manufacturer – IdeaForge Technology Private Limited – had also participated in this event. India’s new found thrust on military exports has already started showing results: it now exports military equipment and services to more than seventy countries and has already witnessed a 334 percent jump in its military exports in the last five years. From large platforms like Tejas, Brahmos to different types of light and medium helicopters are all items that are either already contracted for or in the negotiation pipelines. Just in a span of eight odd years, thanks primarily to determined efforts from the current Modi government, India appears to be shifting from a dubious nomenclature ‘India as a Waepons Merchants’ Paradise’ to a nascent yet aggressive arms supplier. DefExpo 2022 will not only display an overt strategic intent toward indigenization, but more importantly it would show its technology prowess in emerging and futuristic technologies like unmanned systems (drones – for both military and civilian applications) with an equally overt strategic intents toward exports. Manthan – an Annual Defence Innovation Event by iDEX and MoD – is likely to witness enthusiastic participations from all types of Indian innovators. Such carefully planned events will take DefExpo 2022 to new levels altogether.

India has been witnessing a process of strategic shift in its approach toward military power. Almost every field of activity in national security sector has been undergoing transition, largely from a autarkic to a more open proactive model. Such processes invariably entail disruptive results in initial years. However, a determined and decisive political will can navigate such disruption and bring in visible results in the next decades. Events like DefExpo 2022 must not be caged in traditional frameworks but keep evolving through carefully crafted themes and actions.


By Deba R Mohanty
(The author  is a New Delhi based military affairs analyst. Views are personal. )

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