Thunder amidst the Temples
The DefExpo 2018 at Kancheepuram
The biennial DefExpo Land, Naval & Internal Homeland Security Systems Exhibition 2018 was held “in the land of a thousand temples” in southern India, specifically at Kancheepuram on the Coromandel coast. Considering the short time given to organisers in an rather unlikely location, the event was pulled off with satisfactory results. In her Press Conference, Defence Minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman justified this new location while Prime Minister Narendra Modi came the next day to address the mammoth crowd in his characteristic oratorical style. The Indian Defence Industry showed their wares while the defence forces demonstrated some of their prowess on the beach ( see Cover).
This time around, the biennial DefExpo Land, Naval & Internal Homeland Security Systems Exhibition was held in the land of a thousand temples in southern India, specifically at Arulmigu Nithyakalyana Perumal Temple, Thiruvidanthai, Thiruporur Taluk, Kancheepuram, on the Coromandel coast of southern India. According to the Defence Ministry, over 670 firms, including 154 foreign OEMs, participated in this exhibition, whose dates and location had officially only been announced a little over two months before the event. This naturally resulted in frenzied organisational activity, which true to the Indian tradition of being “JIT”, was pulled off with surprising results, and the obvious shortcomings accepted with patience. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited who took on the mantle of organising this DefExpo, did a Herculean job !
However, unlike during past DefExpos, there was no inaugural ceremony but instead on Day One, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman held an expectedly well-attended Press Conference, alongside RRM Subhas Bhamre. They were flanked on the stage by all senior defence ministry bureaucrats, including DRDO’s Dr S Christopher,
Defence Secretary Sanjay Mittra and Dr Ajay Kumar, Secretary Defence Production. In her characteristic and cryptic style, the Minister fielded questions in English, Hindi – and frequently in Tamil, which was perhaps understandable considering the locale. Upon being questioned on the choice of the venue as Kanchipuram in Chennai, Nirmala Sitharaman stated that this was “a conscious decision. Of the two defence corridors in India recently announced, one is in southern India, being a swath between Chennai and Coimbatore and also in Western UP. Historically too, this was from where the ancient ships of the Cholas set sail to Southeast Asia.”
Pre- empting some criticism, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman defended the total count of participants at DefExpo which must take into account the numerous entities of DRDO and left it at that. The two distinct features of this year’s edition were the “clear accent” on Indian defence companies vis-àvis foreign participants, who were dutifully showcasing their products at DefExpo. As many ‘Made in India’ products were receiving support for export, the Minister hoped that India would soon be emerging as a major defence-manufacturing hub. Select DPSUs, including HAL, BEL, and those under the aegis of the DRDO, who are engaged in independent R&D, have the potential of acquiring “so many patents.” The Defence Minister also articulated how much she felt “extreme pride” in showcasing these.
Taking questions from the audience, patiently managed by the DPR Ms Rajshekhar, Nirmala Sitharaman walked the diplomatic thin ice in context of indigenous production versus import of foreign weapon systems. “When I am promoting Indian exports and Indian manufacturing, I am also telling the forces to procure from them. They do too. But I would want to draw a thin line –and I am conscious that it is a thin line – between the government’s enthusiasm on making sure the production capabilities are such that they can meet with international standards and be exportworthy; and the other side of the line where the Army or the Navy or the Air Force make their decision on what they want, what combination of equipment they want and in that combination, if an Indian-produced item fits in.”
“I can only go that far and not further, just as they can go that far and not any further without compromising each others’ interest–and my interest is not different from theirs, because after all the MoD has to take care of the forces as much as the defence production aspect,” she admitted.
As expected, there were several questions on the recent RFI issued for procurement of 110 fighters for the Indian Air Force but these were smartly deflected by the Defence Minister to her Defence Secretary, who continually evaded a clear cut response, simply repeating that “this was too early.” (Considering that the IAF have been struggling for near two decades to identify options to augment their fast depleting combat strength, this is as much an understatement as it gets ! Ed)
Now, Day Two of DefExpo 2018 saw the official inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who arrived at the show amidst thundering applause. There was a posse of ministers from the Ministry of Defence, the Tamil Nadu legislature as well as the three Chiefs from the Army, Navy and Air Force, all of whom joined the thousands present in the make-shift hall when the invocation Neeraarum Kadaludutha (Tamil State anthem) was played: which had some eyebrows raised.
The Prime Minister electronically launched iDEX (Innovation for Defence Excellence), the entire event being telecast live to missions in several foreign countries, including Australia, Russia, Germany, Italy, Nigeria Bhutan, Nepal and other places.
The PM thereafter addressed the mammoth crowd in his characteristic oratorical style and bluntly criticised the previous UPA government’s “laziness, incompetence or perhaps some hidden motives” for delays in defence procurement. Mr Modi re- iterated that “the present government had initiated a new process to procure 110 fighter aircraft. We do not want to spend ten years in discussions without any tangible outcome…but, we do not want to take short cuts.”
In another dig at the UPA, the PM said the “policy paralysis” that had set in the defence sector was a thing of the past and “it shall not happen again.” Addressing concerns of the industry, Modi emphasised: “Our goal is not merely to tinker but to transform. We want to move fast, but with no shortcuts... I am aware we need to do a lot more, we are committed to do so”, even as he promised extensive consultation with all stakeholders—both Indian and foreign companies. The PM concluded that “Dreams must be transformed into thoughts, and thoughts into actions.”
Invitees then trooped out to the nearby ‘Demonstration Area’ on the nearby beach to witness flypasts by HAL-built aircraft even as tanks and guns churned up the sand and warships sailed offshore with some aplomb.