Although there has been no formal confirmation from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), India's flagship air show, Aero India, is on the move — many reckon in the wrong direction

by Angad Singh

Defence and aerospace ‘trade shows’ in India are not viewed with any great seriousness around the world

Participation is meagre (despite what the breathless annual press releases will tell you), there is precious little hardware actually on display, no business engagements of great value take place, and few contracts of any notable worth are ever signed — at best we make do with an endless list of MoUs and LoAs. In recent times, we have added shifting dates and venues to this credibility deficit.

A Case of ‘India Fatigue’

State-owned defence companies have little choice but to show up, with the likes of HAL, BEL, DRDO, DPSU shipyards, and so on, taking up the bulk of space at Indian shows such as Aero India and DefExpo. Foreign vendors that do participate are typically major global players with either budgets for multiple major shows annually, or active tenders with the MoD.

One aerospace executive described the Indian shows as “pay to play”, noting that if their company failed to purchase space at an MoD-administered trade show, it might be viewed dimly by the powers that be. With the ministry-in-charge of both procurement and exhibitions, one is certainly forgiven for an over abundance of caution.

Treating trade shows, particularly air shows — with their higher logistical burden and flight safety implications — as political footballs, is problematic at a time when Make in India and FDI in defence, are becoming something of a running joke.

And ‘India fatigue’ is becoming an issue with governments and defence firms around the world. Seriousness of intent matters, yet these annual defence events are becoming a sideshow to the larger political theatre in the country. While most other international defence shows are synonymous with their host cities (Farnborough, Paris, Dubai, Singapore, Langkawi etc), and are easy to plan for with a fixed window of dates, India has made a mess of DefExpo, and appears set to repeat the mistake with Aero India.

Far From an Ideal Location

The front-running venue for the air show, Lucknow, is far from an ideal location, and November is right in the middle of the worst time of the year for an air show. Pollution and visibility are known issues in north India, starting around late September to early October, and only easing up by late March.

Regulars at the Air Force Day parade at Hindon Air Force Station (Ghaziabad) on 8 October every year know how difficult it is to see aircraft — even flying past at low levels! When the Royal Air Force Red Arrows display team visited Hindon for Air Force Day 2016, they could not carry out their display during the main parade owing to safety concerns. Even the local heroes, the IAF Surya Kiran team, carried out a limited display, with concerns that pilots could lose sight of each other or visual references on the ground if they conducted their usual show.
As someone who has photographed fighters very close to Lucknow in UP (last October, during an IAF highway landing validation exercise), the visibility issues were all too apparent, and there is no reason to expect the situation to be different this winter.
The date change also impacts most firms’ bottom lines. Trade shows are budgeted for annually, and companies pick their annual calendar of events with some care. Recent years have even seen a tightening of the collective belt in the defence industry worldwide. Two Indian shows separated by six months skews plans across the board. Most small firms will simply not be able to afford a second round, while larger companies will be forced to put up token appearances for the sake of propriety, which seems to be the only virtue the MoD takes seriously.

A Logistical Nightmare

The shift to November 2018 also calls into question the Indian defence exhibition calendar for 2019 — affecting companies’ plans for not one, but two years.
Compounding the ‘pay to play’ dilemma faced by industry participants is the lack of infrastructure at Lucknow.
There are a few scattered hotels in and around the city, but the number of available rooms is not even close to those at Bangalore. And while Bangalore has benefited in recent years from the proliferation of quality hotels that have come up outside the city, closer to the airport and the air show, the opposite is true of Lucknow — show-goers will be forced to travel long distances, often through the most congested areas of Lucknow city, in order to get to and from the airfield.
Logistical issues are not limited to travel and accommodation alone.
Bakshi Ka Talab is a tiny airfield, particularly in comparison to the sprawling layout of Yelahanka. The latter has two active aprons for aircraft, a mammoth static display area (even if largely empty most years) and a set of five large hangars located close together serving as exhibition halls. As a fighter base, BKT emphasises hardened shelters and dispersed operations, not expansive aprons and hangars. Organising an air show within the limitations of the field will be an incredibly difficult ask, and whatever is managed in the few months remaining will likely leave attendees more frustrated than even the worst years at Yelahanka.

Gearing Up For ‘More Pain’

Bangalore also has a cottage industry geared toward supporting the air show, with dozens of service providers thronging the airfield, selling much-needed snacks and cold beverages. Trade publications, the most committed partners of Indian defence shows, are supported by a network of local printers in Bangalore, allowing them to publish daily issues covering the events at Yelahanka.

DefExpo’s move first to Goa and then Chennai put great strain on these stalwarts of the defence exhibition calendar, and already many are now gearing up for further pain with Aero India.

The lack of an airshow ecosystem, as it were, in Lucknow or indeed any Indian city cannot simply be wished away. With the frequent shifting of these shows, no one is likely to invest in an ecosystem in Lucknow if Aero India moves once again with the next edition.

Most major exhibitors are already putting a brave face on all this. One executive from a European firm told me that they would be in attendance “with full parade” of personnel but probably with less hardware on display owing to time and cost constraints.

Another said that like the last two editions of DefExpo, a handful of company bigwigs would show up for the first day or two for the requisite glad-handing, before heading quickly to saner shores.

The late date change means that most air arms and manufacturers will barely be able to put up a worthwhile participation at all — and losing aircraft from an air show rather defeats the purpose. Bangalore’s loss is only a fleeting gain (if at all) for Lucknow, but thoughtless flip-flops like this further erode the MoD’s already-fading credibility.