Aero India 2023 – Transforming Geopolitics and Showcasing Self-Reliance

The 14th edition of the biennial Aero India 2023 concluded on 17 February and was inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi on 13 February. The event was held by the Indian Department of Defence Production of the Ministry of Defence at the Yelahanka Air Force Station near Bangalore and the theme of the event was ‘The Runway to a Billion Opportunities’. The first three days of this five-day event were business days, which included the CEOs Round Table, the Defence Minister’s Conclave, Manthan- the annual startup event, Bandhan- the MOU signing etc. The last two days were open for the public to enjoy the aerial show.    

Purpose of Aero India 2023

PM Modi launched Make in India Initiative in 2014 with a vision to make India one of the leading world’s manufacturing factories. Aero India is a step in that direction. In this event, India showcases different indigenously built defence equipment with the aim to export these to potential buyers. Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)-Tejas, Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40- a training aircraft designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), Dornier Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) etc. were some key indigenously built defence items that were showcased in the event.

The global defence market is worth more than USD 500 billion and growing. To grab a large part of this market, India needs foreign investments. This industry requires highly sophisticated technology and know-how so foreign investments- including joint ventures for co-development and co-production can boost the speed to fulfil India’s vision of ‘make in India for the world’. This event provided a platform for the integration of local  MSMEs and startups into the global supply chain which is a major step in direction of making India ‘atmanirbhar'(self-reliant) and increasing defence exports.

Record Participation

The participation in the event was large, as more than 80 countries participated in Aero India 2023. Ministers from roughly 30 different nations, 65 CEOs of international and domestic original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and more than 800 defence businesses, including over 100 international and 700 Indian enterprises, participated in the Aero India 2023 show. It is reported that around six lakh people were there to enjoy the air show.  Such a large participation made this the largest Air show in Asia.

Officials, delegates and CEOs of 26 countries including some major companies like  Boeing, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Israel Aerospace Industries, General Atomics, Liebherr Group, Raytheon Technologies, and Safran participated in the CEOs Round Table.

Leading innovators, startups, MSMEs, incubators, academia and investors from the defence and aerospace ecosystem were present at the Manthan- Annual Start-up Event. The objective of this annual startup event is to create an ecosystem to foster innovation and technology development in defence and aerospace.

Bandhan – The MoU signing was aimed at increasing partnerships between entities. The Hindu reported that the event witnessed the forging of 266 partnerships, including 201 MoUs, 53 major announcements, nine product launches and three Transfers of Technology, worth around ₹80,000 crores.

Geopolitics at Aero India 2023

Different aircraft like Rafale jets and Sukhoi participated in the air show but the most notable was the presence of the F-35, B-1B Lancers, the F-16 and F-18. Due to engagement in the war with Ukraine, Russian presence was nominal in the event. Russian defence manufacturers like United Aircraft Corporation, Rosoboronexport and Almaz-Antey displayed miniature models of aircraft, radars and tanks. Whereas to everyone’s surprise, the US showcased one of the most advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft F-35.

Now the question is why the presence of this aircraft is important from a geopolitical angle. There are three points under which we will be discussing the importance of the presence of F-35 in India.    

First, the obvious reason is the major potential deal. India is developing a fifth-generation stealth, multirole combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy called advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA). It is in an advanced stage of development, with the critical design review completed by the Aeronautical Development Agency of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation). This project is very critical for the Indian Air Force. The US wants India to purchase its F-35 instead of developing AMCA or if in case India failed to develop its AMCA. This deal has the potential of Billions of dollars. However, the chances of purchasing F-35 instead of developing AMCA are very less as it will increase India’s dependence on the US which contradicts India’s aspiration to be atmanirbhar (Self-reliant).

Second, Russia’s invitation to India to join the Checkmate fighter jet project. According to some media reports, Russia has offered India to join its Checkmate fighter jet project to develop Su-75 checkmate light tactical fighter aircraft. The Sukhoi Su-75 Checkmate is a single-engine, fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft under development by Sukhoi for export and for the Russian Aerospace Forces. However, due to sanctions on Russia from the west, this project is delayed. Western countries, especially US, wants India to reduce its dependence on Russia for its defence equipment and be more dependent on western countries. Western countries know that as long as India’s concern lies with Russia India is not supposed to support the west against Russia. We can find the best example of this in the Russia-Ukraine war. Therefore, the US is offering its F-35 to India.

Third, timing matters in geopolitics. US and China are engaged in a row over the balloon issue as the US has shootdown a Chinese balloon which was flying over the US airspace. From the Chinese point of view, this shootdown is not a good gesture as the balloon was just for metrological purposes. Whereas the US considered it a violation of US airspace and considered that this was meant for spying. To send a strong message to China-US used its advanced F-22 Raptor Aircraft to shoot down the balloon. This was the first time the F-35, one of the most advanced aircraft in the US, has flown in Indian airspace. It sent a message of solidarity to the world that India and US are the partners against a common enemy. 

(Views expressed are the author’s own)

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