Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

India’s showcase expo for the defence sector looks likely to be a dud this time, with last-minute change of venues and dates one of the key reasons

by Manu Pubby

Every two years, India hosts its showcase exposition for the defence industry. Being the largest weapons importer in the world, the event – innovatively named DefExpo India – generates significant interest from around the world.

From tank manufacturers in Russia to shipyards in Korea, assault rifle developers in Eastern Europe to global defence giants from the US and Europe, DefExpo is the place to be for meeting government officials, networking with Indian companies, and pitching the latest in destruction to the Indian armed forces.

Traditionally held in the national capital, where it is easiest for government officials to attend, the event was moved to Goa in 2016, when Manohar Parrikar was the defence minister. This time around, the event has found its way to Kanchipuram district in Nirmala Sitharaman’s home state of Tamil Nadu.

While the district is famous around the world for its silk saris, the Kanchipuram edition in April might not fetch the global interest that similar shows in the past have seen. In fact, several defence manufacturers and industry groups are predicting it to be a dud – not least due to the last-minute change of the venue from Goa to Tamil Nadu and a change of dates, which has thrown advance planning out of gear.


The mystery over the change of dates – the event is usually held in February-March – has remained unresolved. In December, it was ‘confirmed’ to global companies that the event would be held in Goa in February, prompting most to make travel and accommodation arrangements. Bookings were even made for stalls and exhibition space.

However, on 18 January, Sitharaman announced a change of venue during an event in Chennai – to a temple complex in Kanchipuram district, south of Chennai on the East Coast Road. The logistics required to set up a venue from scratch at a completely new place are daunting to say the least.

Low Interest

The defence ministry, in a series of press releases, has claimed a ‘tremendous response’ to the event, saying the interest has been ‘overwhelming’ from both foreign countries and domestic defence industries.

“Forty-two countries have already confirmed their participation and the number is expected to grow in the coming days. The countries who have confirmed participation include major defence manufacturing nations like USA, UK, Russia, France, Israel, Korea, Sweden, among others,” an official release said.

However, independent chats with global and Indian companies reveal that either delegations are being pruned or exhibition spaces will be shrunk this year. The official government website that tracks companies registered for the show also records just 325 companies confirmed for the show. Russia and France are currently the top participants with 19 companies each set to feature.

This, however, will be a far cry from the 2016 edition, where according to an official defence ministry release, over 1,000 companies participated, 490 of them from abroad. The release also says that 204 official delegations from overseas attended the show, making it India’s largest ever defence expo.

Business is Bad

A reason for the low interest from Indian companies this time is simple — business is bad. No large orders are in the pipeline for the private sector, discouraging a large set of small and medium enterprises that had set up shop at the 2016 show, hoping to ride the wave of a boom in the defence manufacturing sector.

However as the past two years have shown, private companies have not been able to cash in on the sector. The recent report by junior defence minister Subhash Bhamre to the PMO has stated this problem in clear terms, blaming a lack of decision-making and bureaucratic processes for a failure to unlock Make in India in the sector.

The lacklustre defence budget – ThePrint brought out how the Air Force’s allocation does not even make up for committed liabilities – has added to the disappointment.

Other than the Rafale deal, it is a fact that not a single major defence contract that was initiated by the NDA government after it came to power in 2014 has actually been awarded to the winner. Deals that have been signed were either legacy – like the Chinook and Apache helicopter purchases – or have been handed over as nominations to the public sector.

PSUs’ Plans

It is no wonder, therefore, that the DefExpo this time seems to be heading for a bailout from public sector units, the biggest beneficiary of the defence ministry’s generosity over the past four years.

The theme for the expo this time is ‘India: The Emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub’. The mega plans for the event is to showcase weapon systems largely made by PSUs or developed by the DRDO.

From Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s flying platforms like the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Advanced Light Helicopter to the 155 mm Advanced Towed Artillery Gun (ATAG) and Arjun Tank, the show would see a range of Indian-made systems on display. In addition, naval shipyards will exhibit capabilities in manufacturing and servicing ships.

While intense efforts are on to ‘encourage’ participation at the event in all manners possible, signs are certainly pointing at the DefExpo being a dud. A final verdict would be available in a fortnight or so, when final registrations for the event close down.