by Gp. Capt. Anupam Banerjee (r.)
Ensuing, the recently held Virtual Summit between the Prime Ministers of India and UK, a very significant statement was issued by British High Commission in India.
The high commission stated “In addition to commitments on the Indo-Pacific, the two countries agreed to build on existing government-to-government collaboration on India’s future combat air engine requirements. As part of a ‘2030 Roadmap’, they agreed to work closely together in support of India’s indigenous development of the Light Combat Aircraft Mark 2” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-and-india-prime-ministers-announce-enhanced-defence-cooperation).
As far as history recalls, aero engine technology has proved to be the Achilles heel of India’s quest for self-reliance in combat aircraft manufacturing. The first indigenous fighter aircraft Marut that was developed by HAL was plagued by aero engine issues.
Few decades later the ‘Kaveri’ engine story followed a similar tale of failure to harness this difficult yet critical technology. Kaveri failed its high-altitude trials in Russia in the year 2004, leaving no choice for LCA designers to look for a viable alternative. The US manufactured General Electric GE-F404IN engine was finally selected as the replacement and is currently in use with the Tejas fighter that entered service for the IAF in 2016.
The reasons that delayed the development of Kaveri engine can be broadly categorized as technological complexity of design and development, lack of critical equipment and materials, engine technology denial by countries having the technology, inadequate domestic testing facilities, and non-availability of specialized manpower.
Though Kaveri project is no longer linked with LCA, the under development Ghatak UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) is going to be powered by a derivative of Kaveri engine and will be a 46-kilonewton dry variant of the Kaveri aero engine, thus ensuring some utilization of significant amount of money and effort that has so far been spent on the said project.
Big Question ?
So, what does the future of India’s quest for aero engines look like – the issue is very complex and may not fetch a straight answer for it. Suffice to say no effort can be termed as a complete waste of effort. Critical knowledge that was gained in the development process can be leveraged in future Joint Ventures (JV) for aero engines. It is in this context that the statement of the UK High Commission assumes greater significance. So far Rolls Royce and Safran have shown interest to partner with India to fulfill such requirements.
At Aero India 2021, HAL and Rolls Royce agreed to expand their existing partnership. In fact, more than 750 Rolls-Royce engines of 10 engine types are being used by the Indian Armed Forces already. The significant ones being the Adour Mk811 powering Jaguar, Adour Mk871 of Hawk AJT, AE2100 engine of strategic airlift aircraft C-130J Hercules and AE3007 engine for VIP and Surveillance aircraft Embraer ERJ145. Any company with this kind of footprint in a country will in normal course be interested to increase such engagements.
On the other hand, Safran Aircraft Engines at the aero show also signed a MoU with HAL. A statement issued by them mentioned that under the terms of the MoU, HAL and Safran intend to explore opportunities to assemble the Safran M88 engine and manufacture components for the engine with HAL for the Rafale fighter aircraft fleet of India.
The MoU contemplates transfer of a significant amount of technology in the assembling or manufacturing programs. The MoU also envisages significant collaboration between HAL and Safran for indigenization programs relating to design and development of high thrust engines of 110 kN power and above with transfer of key technology in the framework of this development.
These are significant developments and in conjunction with knowledge gained by GTRE during Kaveri R&D can lead to breakthroughs, provided, it is pursued in a coordinated manner where the key stakeholders will exchange knowledge and will be steered by the clarion call of “Atmanirbharta”.
Optimum utilization of existing milestones
In addition to GTRE under DRDO, HAL also has an Aero Engines Research and Design Centre (AERDC) established in 1960 that carries out design and development of Gas Turbine Engines. The Centre designed and developed small aero engines which are in successful operation with our Indian armed forces.
At present AERDC is tasked to develop two engines namely, Hindustan Turbo Fan engine (HTFE-25) of 25 kN thrust which can power trainer aircraft, UAV’s, Twin engine small fighter aircraft and Hindustan Turbo Shaft engine (HTSE-1200) of shaft power rating which can power Light & Medium weight helicopters (3.5 to 6.5 tonnes in single/ twin engine configuration). As of now both these projects have carried out successful trial runs of 25 kN core engine and 1200 kW Jet mode version engine up to 100% RPM. HAL also has engine overhauling facilities for its licence production aircraft.
Despite developing such good facilities over the last few decades, the gestation period for development of aero engines in India is sluggish and disappointing. That being said, it is imperative to mention that designing of aero engines for a modern-day fighter aircraft is an extremely complicated process with amalgamation of various technologies, as far as that includes subject domain like metallurgy, as well.
Interestingly, with our present knowhow of metallurgy, India has been able to successfully make engines for spacecraft, though the breakthrough for fighter jet engines remains elusive.
The reason for this being design complexity of fighter engines that should be able to perform across the range of aircraft maneuvering envelope. Also, this being a strategic capability it is highly unlikely for other nations to share the technology with us in totality.
Closer home, China has had its issues with development of WS-10B Taihang turbofan engines for its J-10 fighter aircraft. China has been testing these engines for almost a decade now while using Russian AL-31 engines as an interim measure. It is only recently that news of its success has surfaced. It is because of the level of technological challenges only a handful of nations so far have been able to master this technology.
Over the next two decades India is going to purchase or replace close to 2000 aircraft from its inventory including fighters, transport, and helicopters (both military and civil) and UAVs. Most of these aircraft will be multiengine. In an aircraft lifecycle the engines are replaced on an average of three to four times.
Thus, we can look at many engine production/overhaul costs amounting a significant sum of money. If we as a nation quickly do not master this capability most of this business will be outsourced overseas.
Also, once we develop this capability, we are looking into a large potential export market in parallel. Thus, though it might appear to be a huge investment of money and effort to get this capability, once successful, the potential returns can be phenomenal for a longer period.
Moral of the story
All said and done, bottom-line is India needs to make indigenous aero engines for its future aircraft projects. Rather than looking at the whole process of engine manufacturing as a problem statement, or challenge, if it is broken down into smaller sub-parts of various problem-solving statements which can be derived at by identifying the critical technology challenges that we have encountered in our years of service put into this field, it may be easier to find a path of solutions.
The need of the hour is to have a consortium approach with all key stakeholders of Indian Defence manufacturing ecosystem getting involved in this process. As it involves a lot of capital, talent, and infusion of multiple technologies. DRDO and HAL should consider involving our fast-emerging private defence industry partners as well, while taking help of foreign OEMs specifically for critical areas.
Opening of existing facilities to Private industry partners can be a starting step forward. The Govt on its part has made its intent very clear by giving the engine manufacturing special status. In the recently published Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020 where para 29 (g) of Chapter 1 states that Aero engines manufacture need to be taken up as projects of National importance. It also states that Aero engines in India will mandatorily be procured for applicable defence equipment as Buyer’s Nominated Equipment (BNE)/ sub-assemblies and clarifies that these procurements will not be considered as Single Vendor Cases (SVC).
India’s defence manufacturing landscape is different today from what it was earlier. Proactive approach of MoD in the last few years along with various policy reforms have ensured an upbeat mood in the ecosystem, thus repeating the old approach of problem solving may result in similar failures of the past.
Difficult problems need different solutions and leadership approaches. India might soon be able to make an important breakthrough in this critical sector by thinking ‘out of the box’. So, to ensure happy landings and efficiency !
About the author: Group Captain Anupam Banerjee (r.), is a senior advisor- Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers and former spokesperson of Indian Air Force.