One of the reasons that there were so many foreign fighters at Aero India 2009 was the Indian Air Force Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) Competition. The air show was the coming out party for the Tejas and it was regarded by the hosts as the star of the show; complete with patriotic goose bump fervor. Despite this fact and the fact that it is starting production and due for initial deployment next year; Hindustan Aviation will not be able to meet the total demand for replacing all of the Indian Air Force’s Mig-21s, which are showing their years and developing an alarming habit of turning into lawn darts. So they are planning to buy 126 foreign planes to fill the gap.
These kinds of numbers send the worlds arms manufacturers into a tizzy of avariciousness. With the exception of the Chinese and their J12, everyone who makes current generation fighters is competing for this contract. There were the American firms Lockheed and Boeing with their F16 and F18 Super Hornet respectively. There was Mikoyan with their fancy new Mig-35. The European (but really German) EADS was there with a contingent of half a dozen Luftwaffe Typhoons. (wait! Aren’t the Germans supposed to be kind of pacifistic?) Dassault’s Rafale is in the competition, but did not come. Saab’s Grippen (now wait! I can let the Germans off the hook here, but the Swedes are loudly pacifistic. This is like a militant teetotaler owning a brewery) is also in the running, but came only in the form of billboards plastered all over the highway.
This allowed yours truly to have a ringside seat watching the arms dealer hard sell.
Russian Jet Tricks (RJT) – The Russian companies Sukhoi and Mikoyan are famous for the acrobatic acumen of the aircraft they make. Nothing puts on an airshow display like a Russian jet and the internet is full of rabid Sukhoi and Mikoyan fans who swear up and down that everything else is trash because they can’t do RJT like the real thing. Sukhoi and Mikoyan are not exactly famous for keeping to delivery schedules, sticking to the contract or quality workmanship; but who cares! Airshow tricks are what matters here!
The Mob of Boring Salesmen – EADS seems to really, really, really want this contract, given the number of people they had there. The German government must concur because they allowed a half dozen Luftwaffe Typhoons along with their contingent of support tankers and maintenance personnel (~70 people) to be drug all that way for a week on what amounted to a sales call. The EADS exhibit filled a hangar. The most interesting things in the hangar were not the products on display, but the women there. The female employees of EADS all wore saris; not kurdas and not western dress, but saris.
The Typhoon put on a so-so acrobatic display. Ok, it had all the typical rolls, loops, high G turns, etc that you would expect; but the F16 and Tejas did exactly the same thing. The problem is that when you fly right after an acrobatic display by a Sukhoi performing the full range of RJT and you don’t (or can’t) do these things, you look a little boring; tastefully dressed in your sari, but boring.
The Politician – Boeing wins the best marketing award. They took member of the Indian Parliament, named Naveen Jindal, for a spin in an F18. That’s even better than bribery! The Hornet could do RJT and put on an impressive display. Perhaps an aficionado would point out all the ways that it was inferior to a Sukhoi or Mig, but it certainly close enough for my untrained eyes. Then at the end, they casually announced that that the plane had been carrying two 500 kilo bombs while doing its acrobatics. Now there is slick marketing.
The Celebrity Endorsement – Lockheed takes the prize for the most over-the-top marketing there. The F16 is an old design and can’t do RJT. So they corralled up Abhinav Bindra, the Olympic shooting guy, and flew him around for 45 minutes at the air show. Now I can understand letting an MP (member of parliament) who has a private pilot’s license (and presumably a clue) and may have backroom influence tool around in your jet. But no! Lockheed does not go that way! They go for the full on celebrity endorsement!
What really amazed me here was not that one of the American companies involved would think of something as outlandish as a celebrity endorsement for a fighter jet. (though they’d never try such a stunt in the home market) What really amazed me is that instead of rightfully mocking what was obviously a blatant PR stunt, Indian newspapers took it at face value.
Here is a marketing tip for EADS. Next time, leave five of the six planes at home and leave the army of salesmen at home while you are at it. Take Shahrukh Khan for a spin and the contract is yours.