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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 20:02 GMT
Foreign firms covet Indian skies
By Karishma Vaswani
BBC business correspondent, Bangalore

US fighter plane at Aero India Show
Huge military contracts are up for grabs in the near future

Under the searing rays of the harsh Southern Indian sun, Indian fighter jets showed off their military might with a colourful display of aeronautical acrobatics on the first day of the Indian air show in Bangalore.

It is the largest-ever air show that India has hosted and is expected to draw over 35,000 visitors.

There are more than 400 aircraft makers here at the show and over half of them are from foreign countries.

Many are here to try and enter India's fast growing defence market.

The Indian air force is planning to spend between $8 to 10bn dollars on military requirements over the next five years and one of the biggest deals it is highlighting is the purchase of 126 fighter jets.

Networking opportunities

Global aviation firms are vying for that contract.

But the Indian secretary of defence production was quick to point out that no deals would be signed during the air show.

"No sizeable deals of significance are done during air shows - any air shows," Secretary KP Singh told the BBC.

"Defence deals are done in the dark rooms of the defence ministries around the world. Don't expect any deals to be made at this air show."

KP Singh, Indian secretary of defence production
KP Singh says deals tend to be done in private

Nevertheless, the organisers of the event, are confident that the next few days will be a chance for the international aviation community to network with Indian firms.

"There is a huge international representation at the show, more so than ever before," Amanda Stainer, event organiser of Aero India 2007, told me as we walked through the aircraft hangars.

"We've organised the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom, so we helped to bring in the international names.

"There's a 50% jump in the number of international participants - and they're mainly here because of the boom in the Indian aviation market. It's a real symbol of how interested global aircraft makers are in India - this is where they see their business coming from."

US presence

And a significant chunk of that international presence is made up of the American contingent.

More than 50 American aircraft makers have come along to the show - amongst them global aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin which are keen competitors for the Indian fighter jet contract.

In an attempt to get an edge on the competition, Boeing's pilots gave many in the Indian air force a test drive in their F/A-18s - also known as the Super Hornet.

Russian MIG 29 jet
Russian firms have been showing off their MIG fighter jets

India has never bought fighter planes from the US before because of frosty relations in the past. Better relations now could help Boeing's business in the future.

"This contract from the Indian air force is the biggest procurement of military equipment from India in years, and for years to come," Chris Chadwick, Vice President of the F/A-18 programme at Boeing, told me.

"India is a huge market for us. Already it is a big commercial market for us, and we'd like it to become a big defence market for us. We believe that our F/A-18 multi role fighter planes will be the perfect fit for the Indian air force's needs and we are very confident that we'll do well against the competition."

And there is a great deal of competition for the Indian air force's contract.

The British, French, Swedish and other American firms have entered the fray. But the major competition is coming from India's traditional military ally - the Russians.

Russian confidence

Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to India last month was seen by many analysts as a sign that Russia is keen to revive its relationship with India.

Here, the Russians are displaying their MIG 35 fighter jets and they seem quietly confident.

Lockheed Martin stall at the Aero India show
Lockheed Martin is one of a string of US constructors at the show

"Russia would like to emphasize its age-old strategic policy of cooperation with India - not just in defence, but in many other areas as well," Aleksei Fedorov, the President of Russia's Unified Aircraft Company, said.

"We hope that our planes do well. These MIG 35s are the most advanced, we believe, in the world. The competition is tough. There are many who are hoping they will win but we believe we will do well."

The battle for India's skies is just beginning.

It will be an intense competition, with the world's most powerful aircraft and weapons makers knocking at India's door.

Whoever wins will bag a lucrative business deal - and strengthen ties with India for years to come as it emerges as an economic superpower.

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