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A display of air power

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005

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With the latest edition of Aero India concluding on a successful note, the biennial event is expected to grow in stature as a major aviation exhibition.

in Bangalore

THE biennial air-show-cum-defence exhibition organised by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has come of age. Though it may not have reached the iconic status of the ones at Farnborough (outside London) and Paris (at Le Bourget), it certainly ranks on a par with important regional air shows such as those held in Singapore and Dubai. But there is a key difference - while trade enquiries and defence sales at Singapore and Dubai more often that not involve deals made with a third country, Aero India is still an India-specific show.

Aero India 2005, which was held from February 9 to 13 at the Indian Air Force (IAF) station at Yelahanka on the outskirts of Bangalore, was a success. The transactions included the IAF's decision to buy 40 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft worth almost $1 billion; SpiceJet's (formerly known as Royal Airways) agreement with Boeing to buy 10 Boeing 737-800 aircraft worth $628 million; the Rs.30 crore joint venture between the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the French engine manufacturer Snecma to produce engine parts; the Embraer-Defence Research and Development (DRDO) technical assistance agreement (TAA) for designing an Indian Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) platform; the TAA between Lockheed Martin and HAL to share export-controlled data on the P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft programme; India's first low-cost carrier Air Deccan's $600 million deal with International Aero Engines to buy power plants for its Airbus A320 fleet; Air Deccan's $528 million order with ATR for 30 ATR 72-500 planes; and Bharat Electronics' $1.5 million contract with the government of Surinam to supply defence communication equipment and night vision devices.

There were 32 official military delegations (including, for the first time, one from China) to Aero India 2005. The number of exhibitors increased to 410 (including 236 from 30 overseas destinations), and there were over 250,000 visitors.

New attractions at the show, including a fifth hangar, a plush media centre, 2,000 square metres of extra indoor space and the extended runway, all made successful debuts. Taking part in the flying and static displays were the Russian-designed Su-30MKI, MiG-29K, Il-78 tanker and Ka-31 AEW, the American F-15E Strike Eagle, Bell 407 helicopter, C-130J Super Hercules and P-3C Orion maritime surveillance, the French vintage Mirage 2000E and Falcon 2000, the British-engineered Hawk 100, Jaguar and Sea Harriers, and the Indian-developed Tejas, Dhruv (Advanced Light Helicopter) and Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT).

The success of the show has prompted the MoD to consider floating a global tender for selecting an organiser who can give the exposition greater international exposure. Air shows around the world are managed either by exhibition management companies or by a consortium of aerospace companies (as at Le Bourget and Farnborough). The only exceptions are India and Pakistan, where the respective MoDs organise the event.

According to Tapan Ray, a Joint Director in the MoD, certain functions in the managing of the show could be handed over to private players. He said: "We want the show to grow. If that means we have to invite global players to manage it, so be it. We do not want the show to stagnate. Both the State government and the IAF have benefited tremendously from the Aero Indias. If Air Force Station Yelahanka is today well known in global aviation circles, it is certainly because of the air shows." Aero India 2005, which had a budget of Rs.11 crores, generated a revenue of Rs.20 crores.

While much of the success of the air shows has been because of India's rather long shopping lists for arms, airplane and ammunition (with foreign majors eying the multi-billion-dollar orders), it has also in no small part been because of India's growing strengths in aircraft avionics and missile technologies and its keenness to enter into work-share partnerships. The recent opening up of the civil aviation sector, with aircraft manufacturers keen to procure orders from both the private and government-owned airlines, has also helped. The successful flying of the LCA, albeit with a United States-made engine, and the Dhruv, with a French engine, have not only aroused interest among foreign firms but also given the country the confidence to deliberate with partners on an equal footing.

Aero India 2005 was also a pointer to the fact that India and Indian companies are no longer content with buying equipment off the shelf or with a plain transfer of technology. Now they would like to be equal partners, co-developing, co-producing and co-marketing aerospace technologies and defence equipment for the domestic and international markets. That would require Indian companies to demonstrate that they have the wherewithal to develop cutting-edge and critical technologies and make serious investments in research and development (R&D). Only then will foreign partners enter into joint-ventures and partnerships. Though currently India is only in a position to offer a cost-effective labour hub (the cost of conducting R&D is a fifth of what it costs overseas), India's skills in Information Technology engineering solutions could stand it in good stead in the world of military-technical cooperation.

At Aero India 2005 the end user was certainly not restricted for choice. Leading the way were American, Russian, Israeli, Brazilian, British, Indian, French and Italian companies.

Traditional suppliers of defence equipment to India, the Russians (sales to India account for more than a third of Russia's annual arms exports revenues), faced with a dwindling domestic market, were keen to market their wares at the show. They offered upgrade programmes for the MiG-29 and the two-seater MiG-29UB (India has around 72 of these), pitched for a risk-sharing partnership with HAL on the latter's HJT-39 Combat Attack Trainer (which, it is claimed, is a more powerful trainer than the Hawk), and wanted to co-pro<147,2,7>duce with HAL a twin-engine multi-role transport aircraft of the medium (up to 20 tonnes) class.

Also in the forefront were unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Ever since they appeared around 10 years ago, remote-controlled and pre-programmed UAVs have operated in increasing number in risky missions or missions that require very high continuity. Besides their obvious military uses, they have found application in a variety of civilian uses such as mapping, detection of forest fires, spraying fertilizer, and monitoring roads, nuclear plants and high-speed trains. Given their numerous and increasing roles in situations of political and economic crises and owing to their contribution in combating international terrorism, it is hardly surprising that there are currently more than 300 drone programmes under way in around 40 countries.

Israel has reached a high degree of expertise and marketing sophistication in UAVs. But with India having already acquired tactical UAVs such as the Heron, companies like Aeronautics Defence Systems see the potential for smaller drones and the upgrading of smaller platforms in terms of engines and payloads. On display was Aeronautics Defence Systems' solution for `over the hill' reconnaissance, the Orbiter. Light in weight (4.5 kg) and capable of taking payloads up to 1.2 kg the Orbiter has incorporated avionics and payloads that were previously used only on bigger platforms such as the Aerostar Tactical UAV. With an operational endurance of 1.5 hours and an operational ceiling of 500 ft (152.4 metres) to 2,000 ft (609.6 m), the Orbiter features an advanced data link system that transmits all the data and video in real time.

Rafael, an Israeli firm, showcased its SkyLite mini UAV, which is launched from a canister fitted with a small rocket engine, thereby eliminating set-up time and calibration prior to launch. With the capability of taking off vertically from the canister, it can be launched even from narrow and blocked alleyways. It has a loitering capability of an hour or more and its mission is an autonomous one. Recovery of most small UAVs is through a net into which they land after the mission.

Besides the F-16, the Americans also showcased the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules (20 tonnes tactical lift category) and C-27J Spartan (10 tonnes) transport aircraft, which they hope to sell to the IAF, which is looking at modernising its air mobility (paratroops and cargo transport) capabilities. Though the IAF has acquired strategic/heavy airlift capability with the induction of around 28 Il-76s, it has been unable to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of the medium transport (10 to 20 tonnes payload class) An-12 fleet almost two decades ago. The Indians had sent a request for information to Lockheed Martin with regard to a small number (six to eight) aircraft. These aircraft could complement the existing Russian transport fleet of An-32s (which are expected to be upgraded and then phased out by 2014) and Il-76s.

Alan R. Bonderud, international vice-president-business development, Lockheed Martin, said: "We have given them information with regard to price, availability and supportability. We are awaiting a decision which we hope will start a long-term relationship with the Indians." The C-130J, which recently underwent an improvement programme costing $1 billion, can carry up to 64 paratroopers, while the C-27J carries 34. The C-130J, which the IAF is more interested in, has accuracy of 45 ft (13.7 m) in airdrops . Aircraft currently used by the IAF have an airdrop accuracy of over 1.5 miles (2.41 km). According to Bonderud, the advanced aerial delivery system ensures that every parachute is directly linked to the aircraft mission and navigation systems, thereby making certain that wind, speed of the aircraft, and so on are all factored in before the drop is undertaken.

The U.S. is also pushing for the sale of the P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, six or eight of which the Indian Navy is keen to acquire. The P-3C's role is generally anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare, over-water and over-land surveillance missions, and network-centric warfare missions. It can also be used in drug interdiction, fire-fighting and electronic combat.

U.S. aviation major Northrop Grumman demonstrated its Hawkeye 2000 airborne early warning and battle management command and control system, one of the key force multipliers in the modern war scenario (it has been on the Indian Navy's wish list). With a powerful and highly automated target detection and tracking capability, the Hawkeye 2000 has the ability to manage peacetime crises and wartime operations.

India's own airborne early warning and surveillance system, which was being developed by the DRDO but fell apart in January 1999 when the aircraft it was mounted on crashed, got a shot in the arm during the show when it was announced that the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer would cooperate with the Electronic Research and Development Establishment to develop a new indigenous, phased array system. While the DRDO will lead the radar development, Embraer will develop the aircraft.

Development of the airborne surveillance platform would permit fuller utilisation of the high-performance MiG-29, Mirage-2000 and Su-30 planes in the IAF. The utility of the platform also lies in its ability to act as an airborne command and control centre, overcoming the limitation of directing air operations from the ground.

British aviation major BAe Systems, which in 2003 clinched the $1.75-billion contract to manufacture 66 Hawk 100 Advanced Jet Trainers for the IAF, was keen to modernise the Navy's Sea Harrier Mk 1 air defence fleet. According to Air Chief Marshall Sir John Day, Senior Military Adviser, BAe Systems, the company would be willing to heed a Navy request to upgrade the fleet. "The aircraft's radar can be upgraded by installing the (Ferranti) Blue Vixen (track-while-scan, multi-mode, pulse Doppler radar), which the Sea Harrier Mk 2 of the Royal Navy operates with. With the Royal Navy deciding to take the Harriers out of service by 2007, a number of Blue Vixen radars have become available. The Indian Navy could consider taking these radars and installing them on their Sea Harriers. Another option could be for the Indian Navy to acquire some of these Mk 2s."

Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash said the deal to modernise the Sea Harriers would be finalised shortly and added that the Navy was looking out for a world class, beyond-visual-range missile. Arun Prakash said: "The Navy won't be interested in the Mk 2 since it is a different aircraft and at this stage we won't want to start a new line of aircraft. We are getting the MiG-29K and the LCA naval variant may also come. It will be the end of the line for the Sea Harriers once this modernisation is over."

With the global civil aviation sector also showing signs of growth, there were a number of inquiries for passenger aircraft, especially from the smaller, low-cost airlines. Boeing and three Russian companies (Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, A.K. Iyushin and K.B. Yakovlev) have come together for the Russian Regional Jet (RRJ) programme. Powered by a Franco-Russian (Snecma Moteurs and NPO Saturn) engine, the RRJ family will consist of 60-75 and 95-seat variants. The first flight is planned for late 2005, with the first deliveries taking place in 2007.

Operational advantages include a superior range plus an optional robust four-wheel bogie on the main landing gear for enhanced landing capabilities on uneven runways. Although the primary demand for the RRJ is expected to originate from Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Sukhoi and its partners plan to market the airplane worldwide with Russian and FAA/JAA certification. And though it is 10 per cent cheaper than its competitors, the RRJ will have features not of a regional jet but of a mainline aircraft with a smaller capacity.

Also on view were missile systems, avionics suites, radars, simulators and a variety of upgrade programmes.

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