Air shows have attracted and fascinated people the world over for almost as long as aerial flight has existed; indeed, the Paris Air show, the largest in the world, goes back to 1909, just six years after the first heavier than air flight. India hosted its first international air show twenty seven years ago as the Aero India Show, a defence and aerospace event organised by the Defence Exhibition Organisation of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The first edition, held in 1996, was an associative enterprise between MoD, Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Department of Space and the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). Subsequent editions were held in 1998, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021, all at Bangalore. The first two editions were held at end of the years 1996 and 1998 but subsequent ones were shifted to February as that was considered a better month of the year to hold such shows. That is the reason why, after the first two editions which were held in even numbered years, there was a change to odd numbered years.
It is now the largest show in Asia and, arguably, the second largest in the world (after the Paris Air Show), and serves as a networking and exhibiting platform for governments and aerospace industries across the world in both, the military and the civilian domains, although the defence-military aerospace is predominant. Starting rather modestly, the Aero India Show grew to a total of 176 exhibitors from 22 countries by the 4th edition in 2003 and to 380 exhibitors by the 5th edition. The 15th edition held in 2015 was special inasmuch as the limelight was stolen by Pradhan Mantri Modi’s presence to inaugurate the show. This edition brought the Show to adulthood with 644 aerospace companies (326 overseas and 318 domestic) from 33 countries, 46 overseas delegations, and 300 CEOs from 42 countries marking their presence at the event. Over a five day period, 1,00,000 business visitors and 3,00,000 public visitors recorded their footfalls at the event.
Subsequent editions have seen growth in terms of numbers of participant countries, companies and aircraft types although 2021 was a dampener as Covid prevented many foreign entities, persons and aircraft from participating in the event. The event, which is traditionally held for over five days, was reduced to a three-day event with the last two days, the public viewing days, being cancelled due to the pandemic. However, turning a necessity into a virtue, the government declared that the edition was unique as it was the world’s first hybrid exhibition wherein the business elements of the event were being held in both physical as well as virtual modes. Even so, delegates from 55 countries and 540 exhibitors participated in Aero India 2021. The event also saw the signing of over 201 new MoUs, agreements and collaborations. Around 16,000 delegates attended the show either physically or online.
The fourteenth edition of the Show will be conducted on the pattern of its pre-COVID-19 editions from 13 to 17 February at Air Force Station, Yelahanka in Bengaluru. For some of the editions of the Aero Show held so far, Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) was roped in (albeit as an unwilling partner) to manage the show. However, the fourteenth edition appears to be totally under the management of Defence Exhibitions Organisation as there is no mention of CII on the official site of the event. According to the site, at the time of writing this, 731 exhibitors have confirmed participation of which 633 are Indian and the rest 98 international. Ministerial/ defence heads/ secretary level delegations from over a hundred countries are also likely to attend; the footfalls expected are more than 1,50,000 business and 3,00,000 general public visitors. One highlight will be the fact that the Show would be inaugurated by Pradhan Mantri Modi; this is the second time that he is doing so. The theme of this edition is “The Runway to a Billion Opportunities” and the total area covered by the Show, as per a press release from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is around 3,77,000 sq ft (35,000 sq metres), the largest so far. The press release said the Show was expected to showcase a shift in structure with focus on increasing defence exports and forging partnerships rather than merely import of weapons/equipment. The highlights of the Show would be a flying display daily (twice on the last day), a Defence Minister’s Conclave with the theme ‘Shared Prosperity Through Enhanced Engagement in Defence (SPEED)’, a CEO’s Round Table Conference, the Manthan start-up event, the Bandhan ceremony, which witnesses signing of MoUs, and several seminars stretching over the five days of the Show.
Some of the main attractions of the Show for the general public (which far outnumbers the business visitors) are the aerobatic displays. India’s Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team (SKAT) and Sarang team operating the HAL manufactured Dhruv helicopter have been a regular feature along with some other foreign teams. Previous show stealers have been the Czech formation team Flying Bulls led by Radka Machove, the indomitable 66-year old team leader who has been leading the Flying Bulls performing to appreciative applause all around the world, the Scandinavian Air Show Team (Sweden), Aero Superbatics Limited and Airborne Service Limited (both from UK), the Open Sky Jump Team (US Special Forces) and the Breitling Wingwalkers. Some of these may be visible during the Show; the details are yet to be formally announced by the organisers.
In the initial years since the first edition, the Aero India Show evolved in a manner that more or less edged out commercial and civil aviation and leaned towards military and defence content. MoCA decided to remedy this state of affairs by initiating a biennial air show, called ‘India Aviation’, to focus more on the civil aviation industry; the first edition was held in 2008. Some aviation watchers feel this was a case of rivalry between the two ministries — of Civil Aviation and Defence. This theory is supported by the fact that, instead of using existing infrastructure and facilities at the Air Force Station, Bangalore, MoCA homed on to Begumpet Airport in Hyderabad, which had been rendered largely unusable by revenue flights due to the concession agreement between Airports Authority of India (AAI) and GMR Hyderabad International Airport (GHIAL), which started operations in March 2008 from Shamsabad in Hyderabad. Begumpet airport was being used only for private, defence and VVIP aircraft and was thus an ideal venue for the event. However, as can be expected, new infrastructure had to be erected for the India Aviation Show. The two shows have evolved as rival events but many feel that India can ill afford to have two shows and that joining up the two would result in huge savings for the nation. A single event would also prove beneficial for the participating companies as many of them have both, civil and military interests, and thus end up agonizing over dividing their show budget over two events in India. Several exhibitors have carped about having to split their publicity budget for India between two events and feel that if they had only one event to cater to, their presence and participation would be much more visible and constructive.
In the past there were some media reports about the possibility of the venue for the next show being shifted out of Bangalore to Goa; some loose talk attributed this possibility to the fact that the then Defence Minister, who hailed from Goa was contemplating (or may support) such a move. Had that happened, it would have been a foolhardy and retrograde step. The selection of Bangalore as the original choice for the show was based on due diligence by the MoD and the Indian Air Force (IAF) which considered the fact that Bangalore was the aerospace capital of India and was a reasonably safe place from terrorist threats; nothing has changed. Bangalore has a lion’s share of the country’s aerospace industry, academia and infrastructure — both public and private. Moreover, crores have been spent over the years on building the infrastructure to support the event; these include an Air Display Viewing Area (ADVA) and an underpass under the Bellary Road to permit connectivity between the parking area (located in the residential area of the Air Force Station, Yelahanka) which lies East of the Bellary Road, and the show venue which is to its West. Another intangible factor is the air safety value of experience accumulated over 13 previous events form the same venue. A merger of the two biennial events would be a cost effective and sensible step; a survey amongst prospective and past participants could bring about a solution about whether the integrated show remains a biennial one or is an annual event.
Make In India and Atmanirbhar
Self reliance has been a prominent agenda for Pradhan Mantri Modi since his ascension to the Pradhan Mantri’s chair in 2014 a few months after which he introduced Make In India as a programme and a national slogan and proclaimed his personal support to it. Aerospace and defence are salient components of that programme and he highlighted this aspect by making Make In India the theme of the 2015 Aero India Show, India’s international aerospace and defence show. He even inaugurated the show personally (only once before had a PM done so in the past). His personal support kept Make In India a loud and clear refrain in public discourse although, regrettably, tangible results were modest.
In May 2020, while announcing a Covid related economic relief package, Pradhan Mantri Modi introduced a new slogan, the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, purporting to hail a new economic stimulus to a Covid-smothered nation. He used it as the theme (Conceive, Indigenize, Collaborate) for the 2021 edition of the Show and, ahead of the event, he tweeted that, “India offers unlimited potential in defence and aerospace. Aero India is a wonderful platform for collaboration in these areas. The Government of India has brought futuristic reforms in these sectors, which will add impetus to our quest to become Atmanirbhar.” A flying display by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with indigenous fixed and rotary wing aircraft participating was titled Atmanirbhar Formation Flight to support the Atmanirbhar theme.
It is evident from all the official iterations about the 14th edition and its planned inauguration by the Pradhan Mantri that the keenly awaited event will no doubt serve to impel Make In India and Atmanirbhar, as have all editions since the 15th. While the Show has developed into a defence business hub for Asia, the response from international entities has been luke warm in terms of actual Make In India deals, largely due to the slow pace of accompanying changes to make the business environment more friendly to global companies (as also their prospective Indian partners). The government is indeed working hard in this direction by cutting down the bureaucratic dispensation but some weak areas remain. As an illustration, the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 (DAP 2020), the current bible on defence acquisition, is an intimidating 696 pages document and meeting all its requirements a daunting task for new players — especially private companies and international entities.
As far as India is concerned, the Aero India Show is a vehicle to achieve India’s ambition of becoming an international aerospace and defence industry hub. Speaking before the event after a review meeting on the preparations, Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh said, “Not just the private sector, but R&D establishments and academia are also working together with the Government. Aero India is a medium to provide a platform to all the stakeholders to jointly strengthen the defence and aerospace sector and contribute to nation building,” he added. One can gauge the government’s perception of the Show’s perceived importance from this statement.
The Paris, Farnborough and Zhuhai Air Shows are held once in every two years and the only comparably big show conducted annually is the AirVenture Oshkosh show in the US which is more of an aviation enthusiasts’ gathering than a marketing show like the others mentioned above. Possibly, if India was to merge its two shows into one, the amalgamated show would be much more impressive than either of the two, thus projecting India as an emerging aerospace power even more muscularly. In the bargain, the concentrated focus on FDI and transfer of technology might bring about a fillip for Make In India and Atmanirbhar while reducing India’s dependence on foreign defence and aerospace entities. Only then would the Aero India Show have made a notable contribution to Make In India and Atmanirbhar.