In Bengaluru for Aero India 2021, which his ministry has billed as “Asia’s most prestigious air show”, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday inaugurated a second production line at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) that will boost its capacity to build the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA).
With HAL currently discharging an order for 20 Tejas Mark 1 fighters and poised to sign a Rs 45,000 crore contract with the Indian Air Force (IAF) to build 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters, the new production line doubles HAL’s capacity from eight to 16 Tejas fighters each year.
“HAL’s new LCA facility is an example of how Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) is shaping [up] and HAL deserves the largest indigenous order of 83 LCA Mark IA… The fighter is superior in many ways when compared to others fighters in its category besides being cost effective,” said the defence minister.
The Aatmanirbhar Bharat theme is set to dominate the truncated, three-day Aero India 2021 which Rajnath will inaugurate on Wednesday. One reason is the reluctance of foreign policymakers, industry chiefs, pilots and technicians to travel to India, given the uncertainty over the Covid-19 situation here.
Even as larger, more globally-recognised air shows, such as the Paris Air Show, have cancelled for this year, Rajnath Singh has ploughed ahead, notwithstanding the risk of exacerbating the pandemic.
Addressing the media in Bengaluru on Tuesday, he painted this as a triumph, claiming that holding Aero India 2021 was a display of India’s indomitable will.
Defence ministry official Anurag Bajpai claimed that this was the world’s first “hybrid air show”, where virtual seminars were being conducted on-line, even as flying displays were enthralling spectators on the ground.
At the site of the Aero India 2021 show in Yelahanka Air Base, outside Bengaluru, there was a subdued atmosphere, uncharacteristic of the day before an air show. Missing was the usual roar of jet engines and spectators craning their necks to see the aerobatics displays performed by flying display teams from different countries. This was especially true in previous editions of Aero India, when global aerospace vendors competed fiercely in back-to-back aerobatics displays with the aim of catching the eye of Indian decision-makers.
This time there will be just three countries participating in flying displays: India, Ukraine and the US. It is left to the Indian Air Force (IAF) and HAL to thrill the spectators with fighter and helicopter aerobatics.
Indian defence manufacturers, especially defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) have been told by the defence ministry to participate in strength, with each of their units presenting themselves as individual entities. That has allowed the defence ministry to claim “record breaking participation,” with 522 Indian firms participating compared to 238 in Aero India 2019.
However, the number of foreign companies and delegations has dropped markedly: There are just 78 foreign firms participating this time, compared to 165 in Aero India 2019.
Strict Covid-19 guidelines have been imposed on all visitors to the show. Participants are required to obtain pre-approval for entry, based on a negative RT-PCR test carried out by a government-recognised laboratory on, or after, February 1.
For Bengaluru’s public, which throngs the traditional “public day” of every Aero India show, this year will be a disappointment.
There are only three “business days” this year and the public days have been cancelled.