The biannual Aero India 2005 exhibition and air show starting on February 9 will probably go down in Indian aviation history as a landmark for a number of reasons. Exhibition space is over-subscribed in spite of additional space having been created in anticipation. American defence and aviation industry giants (who had declined to go to the prestigious Paris air show 18 months ago) will be present, bringing their top-of-the-line aircraft and equipment like the F-15 multi-role combat aircraft that has proved itself in numerous wars.
The US National Intelligence Council has recently pointed out the ongoing changes due to the rise of China and India (soon to be the world’s second and third largest economies in Purchasing Power Parity terms) and the challenges and opportunities this would imply. And hence the imperatives of deeper engagement with the West. One of the signs of the shift from West to East is the greater salience of defence exhibitions and aviation industry shows in Asia, from Singapore to Dubai and Islamabad, where Bangalore stands out well into the sky, because there is a growing market for civil and military aviation systems.
No wonder the US government has already approved export licence to India of systems like the Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, capable of delivering two tons of payload to our posts at 20,000-ft in Siachen. Companies like Boeing incidentally are extensively involved in designing and producing systems that go to provide network-centric warfare capabilities with tremendous opportunities for collaboration with India with its unmatched strength in information technology. Similarly Northrop hopes to market its E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft in India and the Indian Navy could vastly extend its early warning reach at a fraction of the costs of the aircraft carrier-MiG 29K system.
At the same time, our civil aviation sector is expanding rapidly. Passenger air traffic is expected to grow annually at 20 per cent to reach 50 million by 2010. Both private and public sector airlines are into aircraft acquisition with a vengeance and are likely to buy or lease nearly 300 airliners in the next five years at an estimated cost of around Rs 45,000 crore. At least Rs 40,000 crore would be needed for infrastructure, which is already a weak spot. In other words, investments in civil aviation would average Rs 17,000 crore per year! A bulk of this would have to come from abroad with foreign investment in civil aviation having been raised to 49 per cent. This would also open up a huge market for spares and product support for decades to come.
Our interests clearly demand that all this investment should include maximum manufacturing (not to talk of design and development) capacity being established in the country. With only two aviation majors Boeing and Airbus in the business, our leverages are obviously enormous.
Concurrently Indian Air Force needs nearly 150 combat aircraft urgently (not to talk of modernisation in other areas). Costs have shot up for a variety of reasons and each new aircraft manufactured even in the country would cost nearly Rs 200 crore to replace what had cost a couple of crores two decades ago. Similarly the Army and the Navy require a lot of aviation assets to remain a modern fighting force. It would be short-sighted to simply seek technology transfer for production of the contracted number of aircraft and not press for off-sets production and export of sub-systems, components and assemblies. The inevitable high costs of defence would then be partially ameliorated by boosting industrial growth in the country.
The question that arises is: who is looking at the total (civil and military) aviation landscape for the future in India? Traditional approach guided more by turf than a broader vision, with each owner of a segment of the total picture unconscious, unwilling or incapable of thinking of a coordinated and integrated ‘‘national’’ approach has to change. This requires a holistic approach, and since it involves complex areas, high costs, more than 18 departments and agencies of the Central Government (besides state governments, the private and public sector etc), this task is best carried out under the NSC (National Security Council).
At the same time, the establishment of a National Aeronautics Commission is long overdue. The shear scale of investments in the civil and military aviation and aeronautics demands that we set up at the earliest at least a national committee to synergise various aspects of needs, tasks and resources to leverage national aviation/aeronautics development at a faster rate in every aspect. This in turn would also enhance opportunities for employment in the country, especially for an expanding professional workforce, with long-term benefits for development.