India’s military, civil ambitions to dominate with mega deals at Aero India show

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India is scouting for billions of dollars worth of military planes, completing jetliner deals to meet civilian demand and pressing global aircraft manufacturers to produce more locally at a major air show this week.

Flanked by nuclear-armed rivals China and Pakistan, India has the world’s fourth-largest air force but its largely Soviet-era fleet is in desperate need of modernizing. It also wants planes for aircraft carriers to balance China’s growing power in the Indian Ocean.

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As the country prepares to host the Aero India show in Bengaluru from Monday, its airlines are expanding, with Air India expected to announce a potentially record deal to buy nearly 500 jets from Airbus SE and Boeing Co, worth more than $100 billion at list prices.

IndiGo, the country’s biggest carrier and a top Airbus client, could be next, with aviation consultant CAPA India predicting it will make a blockbuster order of a similar scale as Air India’s.

Indian carriers may buy 1,500 to 1,700 aircraft in coming years, CAPA said, including Air India and IndiGo.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to open the air show, which runs through Friday. It will be military-dominated but also feature India’s efforts to accommodate a domestic travel boom and rebuild its brand abroad.

Modi has made ‘Make-in-India’ a centerpiece of his economic policy, insisting that manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin
Corp, Boeing, and Airbus share technology or make more than parts in the country.

His government’s push to expand the world’s fifth-largest economy to $5 trillion by 2026 from $3.2 trillion in 2021 could mean more industrial supply deals.

Military, commercial competition

“The days of foreign companies selling directly to India are over,” a defense industry source told Reuters. “The narrative has moved as the Modi government wants Indian companies to manufacture in partnership with global firms.”

The push for transfer of high technology and domestic manufacturing signals Modi’s ambition to share the stage with military superpowers like the United States, Russia, and China.

With manufacturers lining up for a slice of the multi-billion-dollar opportunity and the chance to partner with a rising power, Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC has said it was ready to work with India on developing combat-aircraft engine technologies.

New Delhi is trying to reduce its traditional dependence on Russia, turning to the United States, France, and Israel for equipment and pushing its own Tejas light combat plane.

The US delegation will be the largest in the air show’s 27-year history, said the embassy in New Delhi. “As India modernizes its defense capabilities, certainly we want to be the partner of choice.”

India’s pressing military air need is to shore up its fighter squadrons, which have fallen to 31 from the approved 42 as political and bureaucratic hurdles and lack of funds delay purchases. A $20-billion proposal to buy 114 multi-role fighter aircraft has been pending for five years, brought into sharp focus by tensions with China and Pakistan.

The biggest military aircraft makers want in on such a deal, with attention on French Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale, Saab AB’s JAS-39 Gripen, Boeing’s F-15EX and F/A-18 Super Hornet, and Lockheed Martin’s F-21 -- an upgraded versionm of the F-16 unveiled at the India show in 2019.

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