For the Aero India to be successful, private sector will have to play a bigger role
Chances are that by the time you read this, the 9th edition of Aero India would already be underway in Bengaluru and I may be eating my words for making unfounded conjectures about the Show. Yet, I would take this chance.
As is customary, secretary defence production held a press conference a fortnight before the Show to announce what a grand success it would be. Despite figures to the contrary, he insisted that Aero India 2013 would be bigger than 2011. Perhaps, this is every secretary defence production’s privilege: to take credit for organising successful aerospace and defence events (Aero India and DefExpo in alternate years), when it is not their job to do so. But first let’s test the claims against the facts.
Until the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition had gotten underway, Aero India was essentially a provincial show with government of India officials and the public sector undertakings ruling the roost. No deals were ever signed at the Show, which in those days combined both defence and civil aviation. Since news still had to be generated, a tradition of sorts began. On the first day of the Show, after the inauguration, the defence minister would take a quick round of the exhibits and then hold his press conference, in which very few questions pertained to the Show. Indian journalists had disdain for the business of defence and they viewed the few assembled foreign vendors as nothing more than mere opportunists eyeing a piece of the Indian economic pie. After the press conference, the defence minister used to host lunch for the journalists (especially flown from Delhi at government expense), from which he usually excused himself.
Day two of the air show was reserved for the Chief of Air Staff’s press conference. Once again, the questions rarely had anything to do with the air show. On the third day, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief held his press conference. Very thoughtfully, none stepped on other’s toes. Sometime on the second and third days, the chairmen and managing directors of various Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) used to squeeze in their press meets. Unlike international shows, where heads of companies held press conferences or briefings, at Aero India nobody had time for these beleaguered souls.
For the global arms manufacturers, the biggest high was and remains a photo-op with the defence minister. On the basis of one photograph, they justify spending millions on Aero India participation. One of the global company’s India head recently told me, “Aero India is a nightmare for us. Nothing happens in terms of business, because the only customer is the government of India and they don’t take decisions based on Aero India participation. My only job during the Show is to somehow get the defence minister to our stand and get his picture taken with my CEO. Knowing that the CEO will fly down only for these five minutes, I get sleepless night before each Show.”
The MMRCA campaign did not change any of this. It just added glamour and more participants to the Show. Apart from the aerospace giants with fighters in the fray, innumerable companies that provided various components and systems to these platforms also added Aero India to their events’ diary. With the Americans entering the game, it became more in your face, with both Lockheed Martin and Boeing vying with each other to get celebrities to fly their fighters. In the first Aero India since MMRCA campaign began, Lockheed Martin got Ratan Tata to fly the F-16. Not to be outdone, Boeing got hold of him the next day. And the race began. The next two Aero Indias saw this competition being played out fiercely at air force station Yelahanka with fighter companies inviting defence journalists to fly their fighters.
Aero India 2011 was the peak, not only for the MMRCA competition but for the air show as well. A few weeks after Aero India 2011, the defence ministry announced the two MMRCA finalists, signalling an end not only to the competition but the heady days of the Show. The figures speak for themselves: Only about 350 foreign companies have confirmed their participation as compared to 380 in the last Show, with the overall participation dropping to 600 from 675. And what the figures do not tell, the Show would: even the exhibiting companies have downsized their participation.
Anticipating this, the organisers this time have once again tried to reclaim the civilian space (which had deserted Aero India for a civilian show in Hyderabad), with nearly 55 per cent of participating aircraft being civilian. This is a clever ploy to show growth in the Show. However, for real growth Aero India needs to expand its business base by getting more buyers to the Show. It is plain economics: buyers determine the market. But buyers other than the government will only come if the show becomes truly business-oriented with lesser footprints of the government. That will happen when the private sector starts playing a bigger role in the defence business and gets integrated into the global supply chain. Perhaps, then Aero India can truly become an international aviation show for the region, with customers coming from the entire South Asia. Then Aero India will speak for itself and wouldn’t need secretary defence production to conjure magic tricks!