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Aero India 2009: The Drama Continues

Aero India 2009 kicked off in the Garden City on February 11, 2009, with firms from 25 countries showcasing their hardware in a quest for the supposed multi-billion dollar contracts that the Indian military is going to hand out in the years ahead. Defense Minister AK Anthony was on site, claiming confidently that there was no question of scaling down the defense budget in times of economic recession. He’s right. There’s no question about it, because scaling down the defense budget is already a foregone conclusion.

The fact that a country with the third largest armed forces in the world and a GDP growth of 7.1% amidst global economic downturn would peg its defense budget at a beggarly 1.98% of GDP is a colossal embarrassment. Compare that against China’s defense budget (4.7% of GDP), or even that of Pakistan’s (4.5%), whose revenue consists almost exclusively of dole money from the US, China and Saudi Arabia.

Worse, an inefficient defense procurement mechanism has resulted in a dearth of military hardware and parts, so much so that even the abysmal defense allocations of previous annual budgets have not been fully utilized. Given the circumstances, the rational reader will be justified in questioning why there should be an increase in defense budget allocation at all.¬† The procurement bottleneck notwithstanding, this biennial aero-drama in Bangalore continues unabated, with many firms eying that lucrative $9 billion, 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) deal intended to replace the Indian Air Force (IAF) backbone MiG-21 “Flying Coffin” aircraft.

The only problem being that the Defense Ministry has harped on about this proposed phase-out since 1998. American firms Boeing and Lockheed flaunted their F/A-18s and F-16s respectively in the hopes of hitting the motherload, while Russia rolled out the MiG-35 “Fulcrum-F”. France and Sweden threw their lot into the race with the Dassault Rafale and JAS-39, respectively. However, 11 years, 3 administrations, and 5 defense ministers later, India is still to decide on the vendor, much less enter into price and/or technical negotiations with anyone. Meanwhile, our air force faces critical shortages, most noticeable in the sharp reduction of the number of squadrons from 39.5 to about 30 within a span of seven years.

IAF also faces a shortage of advanced jet trainers (AJTs), with only about 20 of the expected 35 Hawk AJTs being currently operational. The most pressing shortage that can’t be outsourced to foreign service firms is in trained pilots — the headcount is currently 400 below par. About the only (relative) success story has been the (almost) on-time delivery of Israeli Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) last month. The AWACSs will be mounted onto IL-76 transporters and will give the IAF the ability to detect missile movement deep within enemy territory.

Israel’s ability to translate demand into delivered product on schedule is a promising sign and indicative of a reliable long term supplier. That Israel has been fairly resistant to Beijing and Washington’s earlier protests against providing India advanced technology is also a good sign. At Aero India’09, Israel demonstrated its third-generation AWACS (called “Conformal Airborne Early Warning and Control System”, or CAEW) which have already been inducted into the Israeli Air Force in 2006.¬† The wildcard in the Indo-Israeli military equation is India’s political leadership, which shows neither the urgency to plug gaping defense holes, nor the capacity for strategic thought.

In conclusion, while the Surya Kiran’s aerobatics may light up the skies of Bangalore with mesmerizing tinges of saffron, white and green, this biennial platform is meaningless if the Defense Ministry isn’t willing to commit to an overhaul of its procurement mechanism, maintain a well trained and motivated yoke of pilots, and put its money where its mouth is with regard to defense budget allocation.

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