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Aero India: A Non-Expert View

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  • February 11, 2013

    This is my first visit to Aero India, one of Asia’s premier aviation shows, and what I gather is that it may be my last – if I don’t make it to its 10th edition in 2015, that is. Apparently, the flying activities at the Yelahanka air base have grown so big over the years that they are adversely affecting the operation of the Bengaluru International Airport.

    Whatever venue is selected in the future, the air show is likely to stay in Karnataka. The state, after all, is home to the much-maligned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s most important military aerospace manufacturer, which traces its roots to a shop set up in 1940 by a Jain industrialist and the princely State of Mysore. Further, India’s main space and defence centres are based in Bengaluru, as are assorted technology and engineering service centres, R&D operations, joint ventures and tie-ups with Boeing, EADS, Rolls-Royce, Honeywell and other global industry players. A 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers India report sees it thus: “There is a buzz in the air – not just from the engines of global [Original Equipment Manufacturers] landing in Karnataka, but also from the activity in the Government to promote the State as the aerospace hub of not just India but Asia.” Indeed, right next to the International Airport, the state government is developing a 1000-acre park dedicated specifically to aerospace, which will come with its own Special Economic Zone. On the first day of the air show, Karnataka’s chief minister issued an “order” that establishes a broad platform for attracting investment through private-public partnerships. Thousands of new jobs will be created before 2023, he said.

    Given current trends, the Indian aerospace sector is expected to outperform the global average for years, even decades. On the civilian side, rapid consumer market growth in India promises sales of almost 1000 planes before 2030; on the military side, more multi-billion dollar military hardware deals are on the way – like the one for the Dassault Rafale fighter (now delayed, but French president Francois Hollande will be arriving on Valentine’s Day to push the contract negotiations forward). In theory, this type of growth is likely to lead to more technological know-how and know-why at home, which should lead to even more business down the line.

    The military market is particularly interesting to watch, as it constitutes an index of India’s strategic and high politics doings. New Delhi has indeed been busy exchanging a lot of bucks for a lot of bang. Already the world’s second or third buyer of arms, the Indian government has earmarked over U.S.$ 100 billion for new weaponry in the coming decade. Judging by the past record, this spending spree is likely to benefit multiple suppliers. Smith’s India’s Ad Hoc Arsenal (1994), Subrahmanyam and Monteiro’s Shedding Shibboleths (2005) and Cohen and Dasgupta’s Arming without Aiming (2010) all agree that streamlined inventories are not a priority in India’s military acquisitions. Browsing the show’s Indian Air Force display involves learning about a bewildering variety of aircraft and equipment made in all corners of the world. Not surprisingly, those in the business of selling bang for the buck flock to Bengaluru.

    The procurement of defence equipment tends to raise eyebrows in general, but the diversity of the Indian inventories – think about all those extra maintenance, training, and overhead costs – can be especially puzzling. Different observers attribute different clusters of causes to it; but what few explanations omit is the idea and practice of ‘non-alignment’ (which includes retrospective and contemporary derivatives or corollaries such as ‘international independence’, ‘strategic autonomy’, ‘non-alliance’, ‘non-reliance’, ‘polyalignment’ and indeed, ‘non-alignment 2.0’). This posture works itself through military acquisition inasmuch as non-price criteria always include not only items such as technical quality and technology transfers, but also the ability to hedge India’s bets over the longer term.

    This type of hedging carries advantages in the international arena for many reasons—above all because political capital accrues to those who can legitimately claim to be beholden only to themselves. India’s power in the next round of politics among nations will thus stem not simply from the latest purchase of military goods, but also from the manner in which it has amassed them.

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