Aerospace and Defense in India: An Important Security Partner and Expanding Commercial Market

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to India and visit with government, industry and nonprofit leaders as part of a seven-person bipartisan American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) delegation. The ACYPL has coordinated leadership exchanges between the U.S. and India since 1979 and were responsible for now Prime Minister Modi’s first and only visit to the U.S. before becoming Prime Minister. Our group included individuals from different professions and parts of the U.S., and we all appreciated this unique situation where we could share ideas with counterparts in India.

ACYPL’s leadership exchange partner, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), coordinated cultural and policy discussions with a variety of entities in three different areas of the country: New Delhi (India’s capital), Lucknow (the capital of the most populous state in the world) and Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore and now the Indian Silicon Valley). Each location presented different customs, industry and cuisine, but the common theme throughout the visit was opportunity; opportunity for the Indian people and opportunity for increased global trade as India’s GDP continues to grow rapidly (reports by FICCI estimate that the Indian GDP could grow as high a $9 trillion by 2030 and $40 trillion by 2047).

As India’s economy grows, commercial air travel is also increasing, as evidenced by the country’s remarkable growth in airport construction. At a briefing with the Indian embassy, the economic officer told us that 10 years ago India had only 17 airports across the country. Now the goal is to have 45 by 2025. As a result, they expect to need approximately 2,000 new civilian aircraft in the next 15 years. That means the question is not whether the Indian commercial aircraft market will grow, but what country will be their leading trading partner as the growth continues?

Along with our economic relationship, the US–India defense partnership is becoming increasingly important. This special relationship was made official in 2016, when the United States declared India a “major defense partner.” This fall, there was a push by both countries to elevate their strategic ties at their first “2+2 dialogue” that centered on key issues, including national defense. The first billboard I saw after landing in New Delhi was a fighter jet advertising Aero India – the Bengaluru air show. While their aerospace industry is still developing, there’s increased focused on building capacity to enter the supply chain in defense items and a desire from both the Indian government and industry to contribute to the global supply chain.

This growing partnership was highlighted recently by Cope India 2018 — a 12-day joint exercise between the U.S. and Indian Air Force. At the conclusion, officials of both countries called for such joint exercises to be held more frequently. While this is a promising development, India still has substantial ties with potential adversaries. But increasing trade can develop this relationship with an important nation that is growing its military capability.

Our two nations also face a similar challenge across our defense and aerospace sectors: addressing the skills gap in manufacturing. At its current rate, FICCI reported that the Indian economy has been creating employment for 5 to 5.5 million people each year. But even at that rate, every year one million new entrants seeking employment cannot find productive work. And while India’s education system is improving, many students are focusing on jobs in information technology, which leaves the manufacturing sector lacking when it comes to new hires.

ACYPL DelegationThis problem was brought up in multiple meetings during my trip, which allowed me to introduce the Team America Rocketry Challenge and International Rocketry Challenge. Each year, AIA supports American teams competing against British, French and Japanese teams, and India could potentially join this competition as a way to grow student interest in aerospace at a young age. During our trip, we visited four different schools and saw children who were not only eager to learn, but also ready to lead in areas of the environment or sanitation, two major challenges across the country. I have no doubt their determination and perseverance would lead to success in the Rocketry Challenge – and the aerospace industry.

The growth of our sector in India seems inevitable, but the major partner nations are still uncertain. I am confident that through commercial opportunities, defense cooperation or student rocketry competitions, there will be countless chances for U.S.–Indian aerospace collaboration in the future. It was an honor to be selected by ACYPL for this once in a lifetime opportunity, and I look forward to advocating for improved access to trade and a stronger security partnership between our two countries.