Thursday, March 03, 2022

Ukraine invasion: Has the time come for Indian aviation to be self-dependent?

The sanctions imposed by the US and its NATO allies on Russia must serve as a lesson to the Indian aviation sector. In the eventuality of India getting drawn into a conflict with a hostile nation, it will need to take appropriate action to minimise damage to a high strategic value sector like aviation.

"The unfortunate scenario with Russia and Ukraine should be an eye-opener for the Indian aviation ecosystem and decision-makers at the highest levels. Even though Russia has a far more developed aircraft maintenance industry, the dependence of Russian airlines on foreign original equipment makers (OEMs) and foreign maintenance, repair and overhaul (MROs) contractors has resulted in their entire civil aviation industry coming to a standstill," said Rohit Tomar, partner at aviation consultancy, Caladrius Aero Consulting.

The Russian aerospace industry is very advanced and has given the world well-known aircraft brands like Beriev, Ilyushin, Irkut, Tupolev and Sukhoi. However, manufacturers Airbus and Boeing account for over 60 per cent of the civilian aircraft flying in the country. Following sanctions, the two have curtailed Russia from accessing their repair manuals, spares supplies and servicing facilities in other countries.

"India is far more exposed with almost 90 per cent dependency on the foreign OEMs and MROs. The strategic think tanks now need to seriously ponder why the western OEMs would not be keen to give these capabilities to India. The simple answer is because the lack of such capabilities can easily be leveraged to enforce sanctions against a country to force it to come to the negotiating table," added Tomar. 

According to official estimates, the market size of the country's civil aviation industry is currently pegged at Rs 90,000 crore. Of this, the MRO segment accounts for about 15 per cent share, or Rs 13,500 crore. However, as things stand today, 85 per cent of MRO-related work gets offshored to countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and the UAE, with only 15 per cent being done in India.

Another area that India needs to focus on is aircraft manufacturing. Since 2016, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has started inducting the indigenously developed single-engine multi-role light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas into its fleet. Starting in the 1980s to replace IAF's aging Mig-21 fleet, bureaucratic delays and alleged lobbying by arms lobbies delayed the LCA programme by more than 30 years. The Ukraine conflict shows the need to step on the gas to develop a robust aeronautical engineering ecosystem. 

"This war also highlights the need to not only manufacture aircraft in India but also to make them marketable internationally. Marketing of aviation products requires investments and ancillary infrastructure from the country of manufacturing, which includes insurance and financing support," argued Tomar.

03/03/22 Manish Pant/

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