An atmanirbhar flight plan for fighter jets - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 6 March 2022

An atmanirbhar flight plan for fighter jets

Given the economic and military-technical realities, India needs to shift to indigenous aero engine programmes for combat aircraft without delay


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 4th March 22


Since India began designing, developing and manufacturing combat aircraft – it built 147 HF-24 Marut fighters in the 1960s and roughly 40 Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) since the turn of the century – Indian aerospace scientists and technologists have developed a range of expertise and skills.


In institutions such as the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL); and IT engineering companies in the private sector, India has built expertise in aeronautical design, flight dynamics and control laws, avionics and other skills needed for building modern combat aircraft. Yet, when it comes to providing an engine for one of these otherwise indigenous aircraft, its designers and engineers face the awkward question: From where should we buy the engine? For a variety of reasons, mostly relating to a shortfall in technical-strategic vision and planning, every aeronautical engine flying in India has been purchased from abroad.


None of the world’s engine vendors – America’s Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Honeywell; Europe’s Rolls-Royce and Snecma; and Russia’s Klimov and NPO Saturn --- hesitates to sell India aero engines. That is because they are unconcerned about technology protection. Reverse-engineering an aero engine is exceedingly difficult. The critical technologies in this field relate to materials (high-temperature composites and alloys) and precision engineering, which are nearly impossible to copy. Even China, after years of copycat experience, has not succeeded in reverse engineering a high-performance aero engine.


It is not as if Chinese technologists have not tried. For two decades, the Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation has worked to develop the Taishan turbofan engine for powering the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder fighter, but the Taishan’s performance has satisfied neither the Chinese, nor the Pakistanis. Even after spending $10 billion on development, Pakistan had to induct the JF-17 into the Pakistan Air Force powered by a Russian Klimov RD-93 engine. Now Beijing is scaling up the effort, investing a reported $40 billion and training thousands of engine designers.


Nor is it happening for India. Over the preceding decades, the DRDO’s aero engine laboratory – the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) – has made little headway in developing the Kaveri engine for the Tejas LCA. The Tejas needs an engine with 82-90 kiloNewtons (kN) of peak thrust, but the Kaveri has managed only a limp 72 kN during flight testing in Russia. The reason for such a thrust deficit is not just technological incompetence, but also limited resources. While global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) spend billions of dollars on engine development, the defence minister told parliament in December 2012, that the Kaveri engine programme had been allocated just Rs 2,839 crore for R&D, including setting up engineering and test facilities.


India’s ministry of defence (MoD) estimates it will buy foreign military aero engines worth Rs 3.5 trillion (Rs 350,000 crore) over the next two decades. Yet, successive governments have neglected to develop aero engines, which account for one-third the cost of a new military aircraft. With Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s focus on “atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) and 68 per cent of the defence capital budget being earmarked for domestic purchases, meeting that indigenisation target would require many more engines to be domestically designed, developed and manufactured in the country.


The same is true of the Indo-French Shakti engines that power India’s on-going helicopter programmes. HAL will build at least 400 twin-engine Dhruv and 180 light combat helicopters (LCH). Another 400 single-engine light utility helicopters (LUH) will replace the current fleet of Chetaks and Cheetahs. Each LUH will consume 3 – 3½ engines over its service life, while the twin-engine choppers will each require 6 – 7 engines, adding up to some 5,000 Shakti engines over their service lives. At the Shakti’s current price of Rs 8-10 crore, the expense on these engines would amount to Rs 40,000-50,000 crore. Add inflation and the cost of replacing components that fail, and the consumption of gaskets and bearings, and the figure would comfortably exceed Rs 50,000 crore.


Besides development and manufacture, engine programmes also need sophisticated testing facilities. Currently, when the DRDO needs to test the Kaveri, it is flown to Russia, along with a flight test team, to the Gromov Flight Research Institute outside Moscow. Here, it is fitted onto a Russian IL-76 aircraft and its performance evaluated in flight. Before flight tests, it must undergo ground checks at Moscow’s Central Institute of Aviation Motors, in simulated altitudes up to 15 kilometers (49,200 feet). Creating such flight-testing facilities in India would save hundreds of crores and a great deal of time.


Given these economic and military-technical realities, the MoD must shift without delay to indigenous aero engine programmes for the combat aircraft on the anvil. The first step would be for the DRDO to partner French engine-maker Safran in developing an engine for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). There is a history to this: The GoI has been encouraging GTRE to obtain engine technology from Safran to resurrect the Kaveri engine for powering the Tejas LCA Mark II. Safran has been reluctant to transfer engine technology to India and remains unlikely to discharge its offsets liability (stemming from the Rafale purchase) through helping GTRE with high technology for developing the Kaveri. If Safran eventually acquiesces (and this would take some chivvying from Paris), this would be a huge gesture of Indo-French solidarity, and would go a long way in persuading the DRDO that France can be a trusted partner.


Meanwhile, the US government is being urged to ease up on restrictions on the release of advanced engine technologies, so that India faces fewer restrictions in being transferred the General Electric (GE) F-414 engine to power the Tejas Mark 2. India is already importing the less powerful GE F-404 engine for the Tejas Mark 1, but the Mark 2 is a heavier and bulkier aircraft and would require the peppier F-414 to power it. The US government has, in the past, rejected cooperation with India on jet engine technology, but there is interest at the political level in Washington once more and the US government is learned to be mulling over the possibility again.


  1. Even if jet turbine engine technology is acquired by India, will we be able to make engines with different specifications with the technology? In other words, will we be able to build engines of different sizes, and outputs? Will it take time to accomplish this?

  2. To master aero engine takes ages n billions...Better India cooperate with France and co devlop India specific engines. France is better option than US who can impose sanctions on whims n fancy

  3. 72kN trust is not a bad number. This was what western engines did in the 60s/70s/80s. Why not design a build a small/lighter jet plane that could use this engine for testing purposes. You won't know how your engine performs unless you have it flown. You cannot depend on others forever. One day you need to fly on your own. Why not do it now.


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