Monday, 8 August, 2022
HomeOpinionChakraViewWill Starbucks ‘exhibit’ its military equipment at the great Indian Defence Expo?

Will Starbucks ‘exhibit’ its military equipment at the great Indian Defence Expo?

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The ministry will have little defence for the fiasco that the show is heading towards, with exaggerated numbers and important tenders set in the midst of it.

Starbucks can brew a mean coffee but how good is it at making bullets? Can an arms executive be in two cities at the same time? Will the desi Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) be counted as five fighters or one?

The list of odd questions that the defence ministry needs to answer on its upcoming showcase event near Chennai — billed as the largest-ever exhibition featuring Indian arms companies – is growing. DefExpo is held every two years, and for the longest time, it was hosted in the capital. Last time around, it was moved to Goa and got record participation.

This year, it was mysteriously moved near Chennai at the last minute, and by all accounts, is heading towards being an organisational mess when it kicks off on 11 April. There are several reasons for this, as illustrated in an earlier article.

The numbers trick

It has been clear for the past several weeks that there is limited interest from the industry – both Indian and foreign – for participation at DefExpo. The reasons vary from the unusual location to the fact that India’s waning defence budget makes it difficult to award mega contracts for arms in the coming years.

However, in a pre-event briefing, the defence ministry claimed it got over 600 registered exhibitors, most of them Indian. This, senior officials said, meant the show was heading for record success.

Digging deeper, the list of exhibitors – reviewed by ThePrint – tell another tale. Starbucks – yes, the coffee giant – is listed as one of the 600-odd companies participating at the show. It will, in all probability, have a stall at the show to sell coffee and snacks.

Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), a premier public sector unit of the defence ministry that makes electronics such as radars, fire control systems and simulators, is shown as 10 separate exhibitors. Each place where it is located – from Bangalore to Chennai and Chandigarh – is a separate exhibitor according to the defence ministry calculation that has brought the number of participants above 600.

All DRDO labs and ordnance factories, similarly, are listed as independent exhibitors, as are the other public sector units dealing in defence hardware. For some reason, the Aeronautical Developmental Agency (ADA) of the DRDO is listed as 10 exhibitors too – probably that being the number of systems it will put up on display.

For some reason, regional marketing centres at Avadi, Delhi and Pune make it to the list as well. Lockheed Martin has six entities listed, all as separate exhibitors, while Mahindra & Mahindra has seven, including an industrial park in Jaipur.

The strangest case is with India’s home-grown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The fighter jet has been listed as five different exhibition entities — from an air force Mk1 version to a Navy MkII version and a ‘Bangalore Division’ in the middle.

For a type that has only nine operational aircraft in service with the IAF, counting the LCA as five different exhibits at the DefExpo should raise eyebrows.

Working in silos

What takes the cake, however, is the lack of coordination between various wings of the defence ministry that has left the industry in knots. To start with, the dates of the expo – Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to formally inaugurate it on 12 April, the second day of the show – are clashing with two extremely important dates for arms manufacturers.

A pre-bid meeting is scheduled in New Delhi at the defence headquarters on the date for the biggest-ever tender for small arms that India has ever issued – four products to be procured, including assault rifles and carbines, under the fast track procedure. This meeting with potential vendors by senior Army officials is something no one can afford to miss – it could define the future course of the procurement. Senior executives from arms companies will need to be in New Delhi for this, giving the show a miss.

Similarly, 12 April is the last submission date for the largest-ever tenders for ammunition that have been issued by the Army. Most top Indian companies are busy working hard to complete the complex paperwork required to submit the bits, with things likely to go to the last day, given that companies got just 20 days to respond after detailed clarifications were issued by the ministry.

Black flags

With regional parties in Tamil Nadu sharpening their knives over the Cauvery issue – multiple reports have surfaced about PM Modi’s DefExpo posters being defaced in Chennai – there is an added dimension the organisers need to be prepared for.

Both the defence ministry and the industry have their fingers crossed, and that may not be the best way to go into an event that is to showcase the best of ‘Make in India’.

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  1. We are good at organising Tamashas!Wonder what will happen if some future RM hails from Arunachal!!

  2. Its a circus. We have had 3 different defense ministers in the past 4 years, and DefExpo has been held wherever the incumbent fancies it be held (i e in his / her home state – it would seem that these worthies cannot rise above their narrow parochial affiliations). The state of the DefExpo mirrors the state of the Ministry of Defense and that of our national defense itself i.e. a rudderless tamasha (spectacle). On the one hand we have been pursuing a high profile, increasingly strident foreign policy, even as geopolitical alliances shift – such as the emerging compact between Russia, China and Pakistan; even as the security situation in our neighborhood becomes more fluid, what with Doklam, Maldives and the continuing unrest in Kashmir; but on the other hand we show criminal neglect of our defense preparedness. Force levels continue to deplete (E.g. the IAF squadron strength). Procurement is worse than a bad joke (witness the 3 successive initiatives that were launched and have failed in the realm of combat aircraft alone i.e. the FGFA, MMRCA, single-engine fighter procurement).

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