The Tejas in Singapore: Full court diplomacy needed to sell Indian defence platforms - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 15 February 2022

The Tejas in Singapore: Full court diplomacy needed to sell Indian defence platforms

The Tejas flight line at Air Force Base, Sulur, from where fighters have gone to the Singapore Airshow 2022


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 16th Feb 22


From Tuesday to Friday, an Indian Air Force (IAF) detachment of Tejas Mark 1 fighters, supported by a 44-person team, will fly aerobatics displays over Changi International Airport in Singapore as one of the keenly-watched attractions of the Singapore Airshow – 2022. 


The IAF team has rushed there at Singapore’s invitation, being one of the prospective vendors in “Capability 55”: Which is the code-name for the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF’s) plan to buy 18 light fighters in the coming year and another 18 starting from 2025.


Malaysia will choose from a bouquet of light fighters on offer. Besides the Tejas Mark 1A, it has been offered the South Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle, the Russian MiG-35 and the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder, which already equips the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Also competing are two smaller jet trainers: Leonardo’s M-346FA and the Russian Yakovlev-130.


While industry watchers rate the Tejas Mark 1A highly, there is concern over the haste with which the Indian team was despatched to Singapore; and a feeling that New Delhi is participating without clear aims and objectives.


In the Tejas’ first international outings – including the Bahrain International Air Show in 2016, the Langkawi International Maritime Aerospace Expo (LIMA) in 2019 and the Dubai Air Show-2021 last November – the emphasis was on demonstrating flying performance.


Loading up to leave for Singapore Airshow 2022

But while the IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) had put together attractive flying displays, there was no clear understanding of what they were intended to achieve.


We did not adequately examine crucial questions. Our short-term customers were evident, but who were our medium-to-long-term customers? What was our aim in participating in those air shows? In what aspects did we need to impress potential buyers?” said a former test-pilot with extensive experience in flying the Tejas.


Given New Delhi’s “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) policy, a key aim of participating in international air shows was for India to establish itself as a vendor, rather than a buyer, of military aircraft. This would focus attention on the Tejas at a time when buyer countries were sending out Requests for Information (RFIs) and Requests for Proposals (RFPs). It was felt that the Tejas’ reputation would be burnished by flying faultless aerobatics in the presence of our chosen audience.


“In fact, the way to sell fighters is not to have them repeat aerobatics, day-after-day. It might be better for the vendor to play and replay simulated combat missions, which directly address the national security needs of the buyer,” says an IAF pilot.


A defence industry executive likens the opportunity presented by an air show to dealing with a rich buyer walking into an exclusive store, after having made an appointment beforehand. In both cases, it must be decided beforehand who would be the designated salesperson, who would support him, and what arguments and materials he would use to convince the buyer. 


Seriousness is further conveyed by preparing a composite team in advance for briefing and conducting the buyer. The team must include representatives from the platform developer (in this case, the DRDO), the production agency (HAL) and the user (the IAF).


Major defence sellers usually have a dedicated department to address buyers’ concerns. The Pentagon has an Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) to oversee the sale of weaponry. In Russia, defence exports are handled through Rosoboronexport. 


India has no such dedicated agency; only responsibilities distributed between departments. To boost defence exports, a “munitions list” has been promulgated; a standard operating procedure (SOP) has been promulgated for export of those items; an end-to-end online portal has been developed for receiving and processing authorisation permission; along with several other export promotion measures. However, other than a small cell in the Department of Defence Promotion, no agency is specifically charged with all export-related functions.  


Such a department would provide institutional expertise in dealing with issues such as end-user certification and the complex permissions needed to sell an aircraft (like the Tejas) that has systems and sub-systems from various countries. Permissions would be needed to transfer an airborne radar from Israel, an ejection seat from the UK and a glass cockpit from France.


Discussing and resolving such issues is the real business of an air show, where government-to-government and government-to-business meetings are set up well in advance. Thereafter, the air show provides a venue for free-flowing interaction between vendor and the buyer.


Fielding aircraft in an air show might, or might not, lead to sales orders, but any debacle in an air show, such as a crash, is usually disastrous. An example is the Tupolev-144, which the Soviet Union billed as the world’s first supersonic airliner – it first went supersonic on 5th June 1969, four months ahead of the Concorde, and flew at Mach 2 on May 26, 1970. But a fatal Tu-144 crash at the Paris Air Show in June 1973 dealt a death blow to the programme.


Similarly, on 10 October 1984, a F-20 Tigershark fighter, which Northrop was developing for the export market, crashed in South Korea on a demonstration flight. An investigation cleared the F-20 of mechanical or design faults, but then another Tigershark crashed in May 1985 at Labrador, killing the pilot who was practicing his aerobatic routine for the Paris Air Show.


On the other hand disaster could be turned into triumph, as the Russians did in Paris in 1989, after a MiG-29 Fulcrum, flown by the legendary Russian test pilot Anatoly Kvochur, crashed after a bird hit. As the stricken aircraft plummeted towards the ground, Kvochur steered it away from the crowd and ejected 2.5 seconds before the fighter hit the ground. Miraculously, he landed unharmed, just 30 metres from the blazing fireball of the crashed plane. The Russians talked up his Zvezda K-36D ejection seat as a pilots’ saviour, and reinforced the argument after a second crash four years later, when two MiG-29 pilots successfully ejected after colliding in mid-air.


For an emerging exporter such as India, presenting a new fighter in a high-profile air show would require clear lines of authority and control. In an event like the Singapore Airshow, a locally based official, such as India’s military advisor (MA) in the embassy in Singapore should have been given ownership of the exercise.


For flying the Indian flag, an Indian Navy destroyer should have been deployed to Singapore well before time. While displaying New Delhi’s presence prominently, this would have also provided a suitable venue for pull-aside discussions with the RMAF. True, the MoD will have rented a chalet for delicate discussions outside the limelight. However, a higher degree of government participation is signalled by hosting a meeting on a warship. And the helicopter deck of a destroyer provides an unmatched venue for hosting a cocktail party, serenaded by a navy band.


The MoD and the IAF did not respond to a request for comments.

1 comment:

  1. # this is something we are good at. in fact we excel at blaming our situation to explain away our failures. while patting ourselves on the back, grandstanding our capabilities, professionalism when ultimately nothing much happens, and we go out not with a bang but with a whimper we can always blame others; the babucracy, audit and finance, politicians, government dithering, political interference, inter service rivalry, the unexpected weather, corruption, population pressure, absence of modern training facilities, lack of perquisites, special pay, promotion prospects that have led to a career in the armed forces as less attractive.yes, the absence of a destroyer with its helicopter deck which would have been the perfect venue for a cocklit palty as any of our wives who have made a name for themselves in the event management business of the corporate sector will tell us has indeed been a grave lapse. why we could have even taken a few pigeon chested sikh lancers kitted up in bambaiyya filmi cavalry costumery to impress prospects of the advantages of doing business with indiya. that would have been synergy, two plus two is 22 - we could have sold a side order of arjun main battle tanks, the same behemoths that stopped china's PLA from further encroachment in eastern ladakh.


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