Punctuated by the usual disorganisation that characterises Indian defence exhibitions, Aero India kicked off on 9 February 2011. Before the gates closed on 13 February, a total of 75,000 business visitors passed through the venue to view 675 exhibitors’ booths and 70+ aircraft.

24th Mar 2011

 India’s Growing Strength

Punctuated by the usual disorganisation that characterises Indian defence exhibitions, Aero India kicked off on 9 February 2011. Before the gates closed on 13 February, a total of 75,000 business visitors passed through the venue to view 675 exhibitors’ booths and 70+ aircraft. The 8th International Exhibition on Aerospace, Defence & Civil Aviation took place at Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bengaluru (Bangalore), and it attracted 25% more international participation than last time. The importance of the Indian market is revealed by the statistic that India is expected to spend USD150 billion on military and commercial aircraft between now and 2030.


The main “buzz” at the air show revolved around the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition for 126 fighters.  All six foreign contenders are still in the hunt for this USD10.5 billion contract, so they were taking the opportunity to give their bids a final boost. From Europe, the Swedish Air Force sent a Saab JAS 39 Gripen, while the Italian Air Force despatched a pair of Eurofighter Typhoons. Eurofighter strengthened its hand by revealing it would offer the Indian Navy (IN) a navalised version of the Typhoon if it wins the competition. The French Air Force brought two Dassault Rafale fighters. The USA had a major presence, with two Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets from the US Marine Corps and three US Air Force F-16C Falcons onsite. In order to show more precisely what its F-16IN Super Viper offer entails, Lockheed Martin borrowed a brace of F-16 Block 60 fighters from the United Arab Emirates Air Force.

When asked about the MMRCA’s progress, the Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony stated, “Everything is going along smoothly.” He categorically declared the outcome will not be a political decision: “I can assure you that there will not be any political interference…The decision will be based on the technical evaluation and contractual procedures. There is no other consideration.” Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik promised a final MMRCA decision should be made in September “unless dissatisfied vendors try to put spokes in the wheel, and then there could be a delay in the entire process.”

The glaring omission in the MMRCA line-up was Russia’s MiG-35, with an official stating MiG had not brought an aircraft because the fighter had already demonstrated its credentials during technical evaluations.  Mikhail Pogosyan, the recently appointed head of United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), added, “We believe we have a good chance of success.” Sergey Sokut highlighted three advantages of his company’s MiG-35: “India has good previous experience with Russian aircraft; the MiG-35 has new avionics and AESA radar; and Russia is willing to give technology transfer.”

Russia, which once enjoyed a monopoly on selling aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF), in fact failed to bring a single military aircraft or helicopter to this year’s show. This could be perceived as an ominous sign – perhaps Russia is conceding territory to its Western rivals, or perhaps it has supreme confidence in its dominant position in the Indian market?

Indigenisation versus international dependence
India was keen to promote the maturity of its domestic aerospace industry. “This event will further enhance India’s emergence as an attractive market and a key outsourcing hub for global aerospace firms,” said Antony in his inaugural address. He also promised India’s defence spending will increase over the next two decades from the present 2.5% of GDP. An updated Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) was unveiled on 13 January 2011, expanding offset requirements to include civil aerospace, internal security and training as eligible sectors for foreign companies to invest in.

The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is an example of the indigenisation that India is promulgating. “The Tejas is an aircraft that makes us proud as Indians,” claimed Antony, even though only 60% of its components are Indian-made. The original delta-wing Tejas did not meet IAF expectations, and initial operational clearance (IOC) was only gained on 10 January. Production of the first 20 LCAs has begun in Bangalore, even though final operational clearance will take another two years. The fighter requires various improvements, with the Tejas Mk.II expected to enter service in 2015 using a General Electric F414-INS6 engine instead of the incumbent F404-IN20.

The protracted development of the Tejas illustrates the frustration of trying to do everything indigenously. Fortunately, foreign companies are actively courting India to tap this huge market, as seen by their attendance at Aero India 2011. This cooperation may take the form of joint ventures, public-private partnerships or licensed production. An example is Cassidian (formerly the Defence & Security Division of EADS), which is the first foreign company to open a defence-oriented engineering centre in India. The USA is growing into a major supplier, with India acquiring ten Boeing C-17 Globemaster III airlifters via a Foreign Military Sale (FMS). The first C-17 should be delivered in March 2013. Boeing has already scored a success by selling eight P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft to the IN, with the first due for delivery in 2013. Northrop Grumman is offering the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye in response to an IN request for information (RFI) issued in May 2010. This RFI is for a carrier-based airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. A Northrop Grumman representative said there was “movement forward” in governmental dialogue on the possibility of selling the E-2D. The first of six C-130J Super Hercules for the IAF was on show in Bangalore too.

While the USA is making inroads into the Indian defence market, Russia retains a strong grip. One of the most successful examples of cooperation is the BrahMos missile, with the current focus on air- and underwater-launched versions. Dr. Sivathanu Pillai, CEO of BrahMos Aerospace, said, “The first flight firing tests of the Su-30MKI should occur at the end of 2012,” this missile having a 290km range. India has already ordered BrahMos missiles worth USD4 billion, and Dr. Pillai highlighted the fact that any competitors to the BrahMos are yet to be born.

Russia has already sold 16 MiG-29K/KUB ship-borne fighters to the IN. Last year a contract for 29 further aircraft was signed, with the first due for delivery next year. In terms of future assets, India is cooperating closely with Russia on the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which Russia calls the Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF). A preliminary contract was signed in December 2010. Mikhail Pogosan explained the importance of the bilateral cooperation: “For 20 years we’ve been producing modern fourth-generation fighters. Now we’re jointly developing a fifth-generation aircraft, so this is a significant shift in the relationship.” Indeed, the association is moving from that of buyer-seller to that of partners. A total of 40 PMF test flights have been conducted so far and a second prototype will fly soon. Defence Minister Antony expressed confidence in the programme, stating it was on schedule and that the first aircraft should reach the IAF in 2017.

The other major joint programme between India and Russia is the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA), a design able to carry a 20-ton payload. The two countries established a joint venture on 1 December 2010, and the first prototype should fly in 2014. India is committed to procuring 45 MTAs to replace its An-32 fleet.

Helicopter competitions

Perhaps the aerospace sector with the most to trumpet at Aero India was that of helicopters.  In a ceremony on 10 February, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) handed over the first five Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) powered by Shakti engines to the Indian Army. Known as the Dhruv Mk.III, this latest version uses the Turbomeca-HAL engine in place of the previous TM 333 2B2 unit. The Shakti combines a HAL gearbox with a 1,032kW Turbomeca engine, enabling a 200kg payload to be carried at an altitude of 6,000m. This much-enhanced high-altitude performance is vital for the military when operating in mountainous regions. This engine is also of benefit to the Weapon System Integrated (WSI) variant that carries a 20mm cannon, rockets and Mistral missiles on external pylons. The Dhruv Mk.III also features second-generation active vibration control, plus additions to the cockpit displays.

Making its public flying debut was the first Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) prototype from HAL. Dr. Prasad Sampath, General Manager of HAL’s Rotary Wing Research & Design Centre, revealed certification for this agile helicopter is expected in 2013, and induction into the IAF should occur the following year. The LCH is powered to a 268km/h top speed and 6,500m ceiling by two Shakti engines. The IAF has already ordered 65 LCHs, and the army will order approximately double this amount for anti-armour and anti-personnel missions. Its armament package includes a Nexter 20mm M621 cannon mounted in a chin-mounted THL 20 turret, while the stub wings carry anti-tank guided missile launchers, 70mm rocket pods, and Mistral missile launchers.

HAL also displayed a mock-up of the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), a 3-ton craft that constitutes the indigenous solution to the longstanding Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter (RSH) programme. Sanctioned by the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) in February 2009, 187 LUHs will be built for the IAF and Army. K. Mahabaleshwara Bhat, Deputy General Manager of the LUH Project Management Cell, stated: “Our target is that the first airframe will be ready for ground testing by the end of the year,” leading to the maiden flight in early 2013. Building upon the experience gained with the larger Dhruv, most components will be manufactured locally. An engine has not been selected thus far, but the frontrunner must be the Shakti. The single-engine LUH will be employed in troop transport, medevac, VIP, and reconnaissance and surveillance roles, with an armed version expected at a future date.

Meanwhile, the other half of the RSH programme for 197 foreign-designed utility helicopters (133 for the Army and 64 for the IAF) nears a climax. The competition has boiled down to the Eurocopter AS550 C3 Fennec and Kamov Ka-226T. Eurocopter publicly exhibited the same craft that completed evaluation trials in the first half of 2010. Throughout 80 hours of flight trials, this helicopter maintained a 100% availability rate. The Fennec was previously declared the winner of the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) programme, but in 2007 the LOH contract was suddenly cancelled. “In 2007 the need was urgent. Now it is critical,” claimed Philippe Kohn, Eurocopter’s Military Operational Marketing Manager. Rainer Farid, Eurocopter’s Vice President of Sales for South Asia, was hopeful the MoD would make a decision during the second half of 2011. Although not specified in the requirement, Eurocopter is proffering its Stand-Alone Weapon System (SAWS) incorporating a 20mm cannon pod, 70mm guided rockets or Ingwe missiles.

Eurocopter is also competing in the IN’s Multi-Role Helicopter (MRH) competition to provide 16 ship-based craft to replace the Sea King. It is offering the NH90, and field evaluations should take place in March-April. Its competitor is the Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk.

India’s attack helicopter requirement is another arena where Russia and the West are fighting head on. Respective bids have come from Boeing’s AH-64D Apache Longbow and the Mi-28NE Night Hunter to replace elderly Mi-25/Mi-35 Hinds. A request for proposals (RFP) for 22 twin-engine attack helicopters was reissued in May 2009. Trials were completed last year, with the Mi-28NE showing its capabilities in Russia in October. “We’ve done everything to show that we not only meet, but exceed, the requirements,” a spokeswoman from Russian Helicopters said. She proceeded to say, “The winner will be the side that fulfils all the requirements, because the customer is always right.” Boeing is offering its latest Block III Apache, a version that will only enter US Army service this October. If Boeing is the winner, the sale will be via FMS with first delivery in 2015, and the deal will include Hellfire and Stinger missiles. Dean Milsap, a Boeing regional director, said the benefit of the Apache lay in its experience, especially in combat. “We incorporate these experiences into the craft so that it’s of advantage to soldiers today.” Reports are currently being written after the two attack helicopters’ field evaluations, so a decision is still some way off. Boeing has also offered the Chinook CH-47F for an IAF heavy-lift helicopter requirement, although it faces opposition from the Russian Mi-26T2.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

In January the Indian Army accepted the Nishant multi-mission UAV into service after final evaluations at Pokharan. Subsequently, the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) displayed a Nishant positioned on a launcher truck at Aero India. A product from the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), the Nishant will be used for battlefield reconnaissance, border surveillance, target tracking/localisation, and artillery fire correction. A single Nishant system comprises four UAVs and nine 8x8 Tatra trucks. This means the entire system is extremely mobile, and a runway is not required for either takeoff or landing. The army has ordered one system, but orders for eleven more systems are expected. The Nishant has a 4.5-hour endurance and cruising speed of 150km/h up to a 3,600m ceiling.

The DRDO is also working on a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV for reconnaissance and surveillance, target acquisition/designation, signals intelligence, battle damage assessment, and communications relay missions. ADE exhibited a technology demonstrator named Rustom-1, based on an American Rutan Long-EZ airframe. This demonstrator that first flew in October 2010 is a stepping stone towards the more sophisticated Rustom-H, which will have a 75kg payload, 15-hour endurance and 25,000-foot service ceiling. A spokesman promised the Rustom-H MALE UAV will be flying within two years.


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