Visitors get a glimpse of aircraft at Aero India 2017 near Bengaluru. Source: AP
The just concluded Aero India 2017 International Air Show at the Yelahanka Air Force Station near Bengaluru was no doubt a colourful event displaying the robust aviation industry of the host country, which is poised to become a major air power in the coming decades. We will not talk about contracts signed or those that remained unsigned. This is about the ‘subjective takeaway’ from the five-day event.
More than 750 foreign and domestic participants took part in the biennial event considered Asia's premier air show. This year's event had a special ambiance as foreign vendors were in the fray for bagging hefty orders amid the estimated demand of Indian Air Force (IAF) for 400 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), most of them through Make in India route.
Vying for Indian orders, Lockheed Martin fielded its vintage F-16, piloted by flying officers from the U.S. Pacific Command. The American company promised to shift its assembly plant to India, however, the attention was focused on Swedish SAAB JAS Gripen, the latest single engine MMRCA, which also has expressed readiness to set shop in India.
The latest Russian MiG-35 was on the minds of many Indians after discourse in the social media took a turn in its favour, thanks to comments from Manohar Parrikar. While responding to a question on the F-16, the Indian Defence Minister told Lockheed Martin to “first talk to their government.” He was referring to President Donald Trump's policy of keeping jobs in the U.S.
Although Russia did not display its latest twin engine MiG-35 top-of-the-line MMRCA unveiled on Jan. 27 at RAC MiG's Lukhovitsky plant (Moscow Region), Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has declared Moscow's readiness to produce it in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make in India programme.
Russia was the biggest foreign participant at Aero India 2017. It has the richest experience in Make in India, beginning from the supersonic MiG-21 over 600 of which were produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at its Nasik plant under license, to the current production of state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-30MKI multi-role fighters at the same facility.
The Indo-Russian BrahMos Aerospace JV is a trailblazer for others to follow.
The Russian defence industry had another feather in its cap. The MiG-29 and Su-30SM (equivalent of Indian Sukhois) fighters became “battle proven” during Moscow's Syria campaign.
At the air show in southern India, a confident and assertive Russia displayed over 300 exhibits ranging from static models of fifth generation aircraft to electronic warfare suits, from next generation jet engines to sensors that protect highly sensitive installations.
“Russia pulls out all stops for Aero India 2017. Amid the din, in Hall A at the air show, the Russians showed that they have arrived in force,” leading Bangalore daily the Deccan Chronicle wrote, describing the Russian participation in the air show.
The 300-strong Russian delegation was led by Vladimir Drozhzhov, Deputy Director General of Federal Service for the Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), which is the top arms export controller. The Russian delegation also included Viktor Kladov, Head of the International Cooperation Department of the Rostec defence industry holding and Sergei Goreslavsky, Deputy Chief Executive of Rosoboronexport.
Due to broadly negative coverage of Russia in the mainstream Western media and the troll-infested social media, the joint press conference of the senior officials from Moscow turned out to be a crucial interface for the Indian media in the jam-packed conference hall of the Yelahanka Air Force Station.
Noting that India is Russia's biggest defence partner with total orders worth $4.6 billion executed in 2016, Sergei Goreslavsky said that in view of new upcoming projects the order book would further rise this year.
He underscored that Russia was ready to offer the full range of weapons and platforms to India.
Drozhzhov, who identified the BrahMos joint venture as the most successful example of Make in India, said work on integration of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles on the Su-30MKI platform is proceeding successfully and once the trials are complete, foreign buyers would be offered this missile.
In a first, the Russian Air Force, which also operates Su-30 fighters would also be offered this jointly developed missile, he said.
Frankly speaking, Aero India 2017 was all about India's quest for MMRCA as the original tender for 126 aircraft was scrapped after its winner Dassault Rafale failed to meet its commitments and a stopgap agreement to buy 36 ready to fly fighters was inked. The IAF has asked international manufacturers to express their interest.
Russia is ready to offer its latest MiG-35, and is waiting for the specifications and requirements of the IAF to send a matching order.
“This is a totally new state of the art plane, much more advanced than the prototype sent for the MMRCA tender,” Vice President of the United Aircraft Corporation Alexander Tulyakov said, adding that it was a “totally different aircraft.”
Many experts, who did not want to be named as they would be accused of lobbying for Russia, are of an opinion that with Russia's past record it would be prudent for India to go for a cheaper twin engine MiG-35, which in the long run could also replace the older MiG-29 without drastic logistic and infrastructure expenditures.
The best part is that any defence deal with Russia is politically risk-free, as Moscow never uses sanctions in bilateral relations.
Vinay Shukla is an Indian journalist, who has covered Russia for over four decades. Views expressed in this column are personal. Read more of his articles here.
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