Global arms majors descend on Indian defence exhibition


New Delhi: Eyeing a share of the $31 billion India is expected to spend on arms imports over the next decade, a clutch of global arms majors have descended for the sixth edition of Asia’s largest defence exposition that opens here Monday.

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Over the next four days, they will be fighting to grab eyeballs as India’s defence planners from the civilian and military sectors wend their way through the DefExpo 2010 at the Pragati Maidan exhibition grounds to examine the best the world has to offer and gauge how best it meets the requirements of the Indian armed forces.

DefExpo has come a long way since it was first held in 1999 with just 197 participants. This time around, 650 exhibitors from 28 countries, including hosts India, will be participating in the exhibition, which will feature 10 country pavilions and 41 official delegations. This is up from the 447 exhibitors at the 2008 edition of the show.

Among the foreign participants are the creme-de-la-creme of arms manufacturers – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Finmeccanica, Rosoboronexport State Corporation, Israeli Aerospace Industries and European Aeronautics Defence and Space Company (EADS).

The Indian participation will be spearheaded by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), followed by the Tatas, the largest exhibitor from the private sector.

More than an exhibition where equipment is showcased, negotiations begun and deals struck, the DefExpo is also a pointer to changing times as India seeks to diversify its arms purchases to not only acquire the best that is available but to also upgrade its industrial base, both in the public and private sectors, by simultaneously acquiring technology in its drive towards indigenisation of its defence sector.

Thus, when the DefExpo was first held, Russia was the principal source of India’s arms imports, having estimated to have sold arms and equipment worth some $30 billion since the 1960s.

Today, Russia remains India’s biggest supplier of military hardware with deals estimated at $1,500 million annually. However, countries like Israel and the US are fast catching up, as are France and Britain. Israel has emerged as the second largest supplier, with annual sales estimated at $1 billion since 2001.

Not surprisingly, pavilion-wise, Israel is the largest participant at DefExpo 2010, with 21 companies showcasing.

On its part, Russia is not sitting back.

Rosoboronexport, through which the country’s arms exports are channelised, is hopeful that participation in the DefExpo “will become an important milestone in the expansion of military-technical cooperation of Russia with India and other countries of the region”, a statement from the Russian embassy said.

According to sources in the Russian delegation to the exposition, “several contracts on acquisition of Russian armament and defence equipment are expected to be discussed during negotiations within the framework of the exhibition”.

What then, in concrete terms does DefExpo have to offer Indian manufacturers?

As R.K. Singh, the secretary (defence production) put it: “We are primarily looking at building better partnerships between India and foreign companies for faster growth of indigenous capabilities. This is a forum to catalyse this.”

But there is a flip side to this too.

While India itself estimates it will spend some $31 billion on arms imports over the next decade, this also means the country’s ambitions to reduce to approximately 30 percent its dependence on foreign equipment will remain a distant dream for at least 10 years.

Even so, as the experience over the years has shown, the beginning may be small and progress slow, India will some day eventually make it.

Finally, there is another flip side to the DefExpo: Military and other tensions mean that China, which is perhaps Asia’s largest arms manufacturers, and Pakistan do not have a presence.

“The ministry of defence did not invite Pakistan. We have never received an invitation from them (for a similar show),” secretary Singh replied cryptically when asked about this.

“As for China, I cannot recall any invitation from them. We had invited them for AeroIndia (the biennial international military air show that was held in Bangalore last year) but they didn’t come,” he added.