The Defence Ministry and organisers have, this time around, restructured the Aero India 2023 events with an eye on increasing defence exports

by Nirad Mudur

The biennial Aero India event is around the corner again. But this time, there is a difference. Apart from being expected to be the biggest ever, the five-day event’s 14th edition will feature a marked change in direction of its purpose when the curtains lift on the event at Air Force Station Yelahanka in Bangalore on February 13.

Hitherto, imports took centre stage, but this time it will swing towards looking for export markets for India-made defence products. The event’s theme this time justifies that intent — “The runway to a billion opportunities”.

It is about taking off, not landing. In other words, the focus will be on Indian defence products to be marketed abroad. And the star product in the Indian stable is the ‘Karnataka-born’ Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS.

Experts have vouched for TEJAS’ superiority over China’s JF-17 and FA-50 Fighting Eagle, the light-weight supersonic fighter designed and developed by South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and the US’ Lockheed Martin.

The latter is a variant of the T-50 aircraft, a multirole fighter that is South Korea’s first indigenous fighter and supersonic trainer aircraft. Some Indian defence experts, with an eye on the export market, are also pitting in favour of TEJAS when compared with US’ F-16 Fighting Falcon, highlighting the former’s higher flight ceiling and speed, besides its capabilities of firing beyond-visual-range missiles like Astra and Python.

So far, at least seven countries have shown varying interests in the TEJAS — Australia, Egypt, the USA, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina and Malaysia.

But none has sealed a deal so far, and the field is not without competition. Argentina, the first Latin American country to evince interest in TEJAS, is now being attracted by second-hand F-16s from Denmark.

A high-level Argentine Air Force delegation, after expressing interest in TEJAS (estimated to be $42 million per aircraft), visited Denmark in November 2022 in pursuit of the F-16s.

Malaysia is also being wooed by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) with its Hurjet, also a light combat aircraft like TEJAS, although it is still under development with its first flight scheduled only next month.

The Defence Ministry and organisers have, this time around, restructured Aero India 2023 events with an eye on increasing defence exports. The Defence Ministers’ Conclave themed “Shared prosperity through enhanced engagement in Defence” (SPEED), a CEOs Roundtable and separate start-up events for start-ups and signing of MoUs, are all structured with an export push and forging partnerships rather than merely import of weapons and equipment.

At Air Force Station Yelahanka, a separate ‘India Pavilion’ with a theme of “Fixed Wing Platform” has been planned during the five-day event to showcase the country’s strides in the fixed-wing aircraft category and the future prospects in the field. A full-scale TEJAS aircraft in Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration will be on display at the India Pavilion. Besides, there will be flight displays to wow the spectators, many of who will be delegations of prospective buyers.

It took the 1983-launched TEJAS project 33 years before joining the Indian Air Force as No 45 Squadron, based at Sulur Air Force Station, Coimbatore. The No 18 Flying Bullets was the second TEJAS squadron, also at the same IAF base, in May 2020, with four planes from the serial production line of the FOC aircraft.

The maiden demo flight of TEJAS was on January 4, 2001, in Bangalore. That aircraft was designated KH01 after the initials of the aircraft’s chief designer and then programme director of the Light Combat Aircraft, Dr Kota Harinarayana.

A little over four decades after the birth of the project, TEJAS flies on optimistic grounds towards the hope of scoring its first export order. Happy landings!