British Chief of General Staff, Nick Carter, in Delhi last week
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Feb 18
Even as New Delhi and London talk up the importance of their “strategic partnership” and exchange top-level political visits, the UK defence industry is thinning out from India.
Business Standard learns that the UK defence industry body ADS Group (the acronym encompasses “aerospace, defence, security and space”), which represents over a thousand defence firms, is shutting down its India office from March 31.
Since 2002, when ADS Group opened an office in New Delhi, it has been only its second foreign station after Toulouse, France. In 2009, ADS Group opened another office in Bangalore. “With its massive defence budget, a booming civil and military aviation market, and ambitious homeland security plans, India is a country one cannot afford to miss”, says the company websight even today.
That enthusiasm has dramatically waned. While no public announcement has yet been made, ADS Group member companies have been informed about the closure of the India office. So have Indian defence companies that joined the British industry body, hoping that would help them connect with small, UK-based, high technology companies, which they could potentially ally with or even buy out.
One of those Indian members was the Pune-based Kalyani Group, which confirms its membership lapsed as it became evident that ADS Group was pulling down the shutters in India.
After March 31, only a handful of large British manufacturers will retain a presence in India – large firms like BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Cobham, which do enough business in India to justify maintaining company offices.
The UK government will continue its support, though, with defence products ranking amongst Britain’s top three exports. This would be done through the UK Department of International Trade, which operates from the British High Commission in Delhi.
Even though India remains the world’s largest arms importer, much of New Delhi’s capital spending goes on government to government buys, or single vendor procurements from global defence giants. “Make in India”, which is what small British defence technology firms would gain business from, has always lagged the rhetoric, even after 2014, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government portrayed defence manufacture as a key driver of its “Make in India” initiative.
It is understood that Paul Everitt, who heads ADS Group, has concluded that India is a difficult market that does not warrant the expense of a full-time office and staff.
Asked why it was closing its India office, ADS Group did not furnish a response.
Defence industry analyst, Major Karun Khanna (Retired), points out that most of UK defence industry consists of two big primes – BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce – which have their own India offices. With large US and French defence corporations buying into British defence firms in recent years, there is simply not enough UK defence industry left to justify industry body representation in India.
Other industry analysts argue that the high cost of British defence products is forcing its industry towards the exits. In contrast, US, Israeli and French defence firms are enlarging their presence in India, having developed low-cost production models that operate on wafer-thin margins.
In contrast to the bleak industry picture, India-UK political engagement is vibrant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK in November 2015, which was reciprocated by his counterpart, Theresa May, a year later. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was to visit the UK this week, which was postponed after the terrorist attack in Jammu last week.
The British and Indian militaries do joint training together. Officers train at each others’ establishments. A “Defence Consultative Group Meeting” is held each year at the defence secretary level. Intelligence exchanges are robust.
The next opportunity for defence interaction would be the Defexpo India 2018 in Chennai in April, which the UK minister for defence production is likely to attend.