Gujarat: Going Walkabout At DefExpo 2022

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Oct 22, 2022 06:23 PM +05:30 IST
Gujarat: Going Walkabout At DefExpo 2022DefExpo 2022 display - TAPAS BH-201(Soumyadip Sarkar/Twitter)
Snapshot
  • An indigenous military ecosystem is being built in India, bit by bit, with nuts-and-bolts stuff and futuristic weapons too.

    If this tempo is maintained at both the policy monitoring and implementation level, the Indian armed forces and our industrial base will be nigh-unrecognisable within a decade.

There have been numerous defence expositions before, and, if policies of the current dispensation in New Delhi are properly implemented, there will be many spectacular ones in the coming decade.

And yet, there was a very different buzz about DefExpo 2022, held from 18 to 22 October in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

Was it because this edition was the first one held exclusively for Indian companies? Was it because the Prime Minister set the tone during his inaugural address, when he cryptically remarked that, while we used to release doves in the old days, we release cheetahs now?

Or, was it because of the prevailing mood these days, that, if we stay the course, and persevere, then India can indeed make whatever it needs to keep the subcontinent safe?

To find out, Swarajya went walkabout at DefExpo 2022.

Entry was by digital pre-registration, which worked like a breeze. It was quite a sight to watch hundreds of school children, and their teachers, swiftly filling out the online forms on their smartphones, and flashing digital tokens at the entry gates, as they filed obediently in long lines through security, to enter the expo in a whoop of enthusiasm.

Inside, there were a number of large, well-appointed, air-conditioned hangars, within which, different companies and government agencies had set up their pavilions and stalls.

From howitzers with barrels as tall as a house, to a working, trailer-mounted air defence missile battery, to full-scale models of India’s latest ship-launched torpedo, the expo had everything to gladden every Indian’s secret martial heart.

The centre piece was a working simulator of the AMCA – India’s fifth-generation, stealthy, advanced medium combat aircraft, currently under active development by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a subsidiary of the Indian government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The rush to queue up for a feel of what the Indian Air Force will get in some years was matched only by the gasps of awe at the Brahmos pavilion.

Jo, baka, Brahmos!” (Oh, look mate, a Brahmos!), one youngster cried excitedly to his friend in Gujarati, pointing at full-size models of variants of the world’s only supersonic cruise missile… against which there is no defence.

The point to be noted here is that the general public has not just heard about this joint-venture between Russia and India, but also, that they take so much open pride in it.

For this writer, the standout pavilion was the DRDO one. Every single item on display was well labelled, had a brief writeup, a specifications-sheet, and, a scientist standing by to brief visitors on the item, and to answer questions.

There was everything from fully-digital weapons-fire-control systems, specialised software operating systems, models of tanks they designed for the Army, and missiles, missiles, and missiles. In fact, there was so much equipment on display that the sheer scale of DRDO’s efforts is, frankly, humbling.

To everyone’s amusement and the organizers’ horror, one over-enthusiastic lady was so enamoured by a sleek Akash surface-to-air missile, that she nearly toppled the display in her rush to click the perfect selfie with it!

And that was matched by the pride of the scientists as they spoke about their products. This writer had spent a full week aforehand, boning up on various weapons systems, and was, therefore, filled to the brim with questions. For the record, his every question (it was a long list!) was answered satisfactorily.

The only exception was when this writer asked about SMART – a truly-radical long-range anti-submarine missile which carries a torpedo, with the potential to rewrite the rules of anti-submarine warfare. The answer was a genial chuckle: “Arre, Saar, it is too good to be displayed in public!”

Another interesting aspect was the sight of our commando operatives in large numbers – both officers and men from the three services – at the infantry combat gear pavilions.

Tough, supremely-fit warriors milled around these displays, wearing ‘Special Forces’ patches, while studiously examining everything from night vision goggles to bulletproof jackets – all made in India by private companies.

The official intent seems to be for users to have a look at what Indian industry has to offer, compare it to the imported gear they have been using for decades, and then, if the desi products pass muster, to generate requirements.

This is judicious gradualism rather than imposition from above, as the Special Forces, in one sense probably more than any other infantry unit, simply cannot afford to compromise on the equipment they use because of the deadly risks they take with their lives.

Equally encouraging were the long rows of small stalls by small companies, offering a wide range of products. There was everything from specialised batteries, capacitors and switching systems, to fine-tooled spares, repair kits, and, because an army marches on its stomach, automated, mobile, catering modules.

At the other end of the spectrum were the big Indian players like Adani and Bharat Forge. Adani showcased their next generation long endurance drone, the Drishri 10 (also known as the Hermes 900), which will be built in India through a joint venture with Elbit, an Israeli company.

Bharat Forge had their own large stable of cutting-edge drones and loitering munitions on display, which were overshadowed only by their towering artillery field gun.

The company says it is already capable of producing over a hundred of these battlefield brutes a year. The Army needs this weapons system in the thousands.

Bharat Forge 155 mm ATAGS artillery gun (DefenceDecode/twitter)
Bharat Forge 155 mm ATAGS artillery gun (DefenceDecode/twitter)
DRDO’s Varunastra torpedo (wikipedia)
DRDO’s Varunastra torpedo (wikipedia)
Varunastra torpedo
Varunastra torpedo
Hermes 900 drone (wikipedia)
Hermes 900 drone (wikipedia)

This is how an indigenous military ecosystem is being built in India, bit by bit, with nuts-and-bolts stuff and futuristic weapons too.

If this tempo is maintained at both the policy monitoring and implementation level, the Indian armed forces and our industrial base will be nigh-unrecognisable within a decade. We should take heart in that.

Therefore, high-flying economists of Indian origin, who gratuitously advice against promoting the Indian manufacturing industry, or concoct imaginary conversations with taxi drivers to paint a bleak picture of India, would do well to have a word with those who visited DefExpo 2022.

If they did, they’d learn that a magnificent manufacturing ecosystem is on the cusp of vibrant blossom in India, and, that this country is very definitely on the move.

The technical-military aspects will be covered in a forthcoming piece.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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