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Explained: India's troubled indigenous jet engine project

The journey of India's jet-engine aspirations has been fraught with challenges, encompassing gaps in metallurgy, deficiencies in manufacturing infrastructure and test facilities, and constraints arising from the denial of critical technologies following India's nuclear tests, says Girish Linganna

Explained India's troubled indigenous jet engine project
First Published Jan 5, 2024, 1:46 PM IST

In a significant stride towards bolstering India-US defence ties, the United States Congress had granted approval for GE Aerospace's collaboration with the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to manufacture fighter jet engines for the Indian Air Force. This pivotal agreement, forged during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's state visit to the United States the previous year, has now received the green light from the US Congress for the Biden administration to proceed with the implementation. The deal with HAL encompasses groundbreaking elements such as unprecedented technology transfer, local production of jet engines in India, and licensing arrangements.

Under the terms of this pact, GE Aerospace is set to transfer 80% of its technology to India, specifically for the production of F414 fighter jet engines. The primary objective of this technology transfer is to augment the operational capabilities of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) MKII. The collaborative effort involves the joint production of GE Aerospace's F414 engines in India, aligning with the Air Force's Light Combat Aircraft Mk2 program.

Regarded as a "game changer" by HAL Chief CB Ananthakrishnan, this partnership lays the groundwork for the development of future indigenous engines to propel military jets. The agreement also encompasses the co-production of 99 jet engines, offering cost efficiencies attributable to the technology transfer.

Renowned for their reliability and performance, the F414 engines are poised to play a pivotal role in enhancing India's defence capabilities. With a presence on Indian soil for over four decades, GE Aerospace is poised to expand its facilities, contributing to engines, avionics, services, engineering, manufacturing, and local sourcing.

While the collaboration marks a significant stride in India's defence capabilities, questions arise about the nation's continued reliance on external sources for crucial engine components. Critics point to India's historical struggle, including the nearly 40-year Kaveri project, highlighting challenges in achieving self-sufficiency in engine manufacturing. Despite this, the partnership is seen as a positive step forward, with potential implications for future indigenous engine programs, such as the AMCA Mk2.

Combat Jet Engine Saga

The intricacies of combat jet engine production pose a formidable challenge that only a handful of nations have successfully navigated. This technological feat, essential for military aircraft, has eluded many due to its complexity and demanding requirements.

Until recently, China's fifth-generation J-20 fighter, also known as the 'Mighty Dragon,' relied on the Russian-made AL31F engine and later the WS-10 Taihang. The latter, derived from CFM-56II turbofan engines imported from the United States in the 1980s, faced persistent issues related to power and maintenance. Although efforts have been made to replace the WS-10 with the more advanced WS-15, experts contend that it still lags behind contemporary Western jet-engine technology.

The magnitude of the challenge becomes apparent when considering that even the engines propelling civilian airliners like the Boeing 747 consist of at least 40,000 parts, with combustion chamber temperatures soaring up to 1,400ºC. Timothy Heath, an expert at the Rand Corporation, a non-profit global policy think tank, emphasises the formidable nature of mastering these high-end technologies, noting that only a select few countries have succeeded.

Indeed, the ability to manufacture combat jet engines serves as a litmus test for a country's military-industrial prowess. Among the exclusive group of nations capable of producing advanced engines are all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council— the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. While some countries, such as Japan and Germany, possess the technological know-how, few outside this elite circle have achieved success in the challenging realm of combat jet-engine manufacturing.

Consistent Failed Attempts

India's quest for an indigenous combat jet engine traces its roots to the challenges encountered by the HF-24 Marut, the nation's inaugural indigenous fighter. Originally intended to be powered by the Bristol Orpheus 12 engine, the collapse of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) project led India to settle for the less powerful Bristol Orpheus 703. Despite efforts by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) in Bengaluru to enhance the engine's power with afterburners, it proved incompatible with the Marut's airframe, rendering the promising aircraft obsolete.

In 1983, the government sanctioned the development of the multi-role Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) at an estimated cost of Rs 560 crore, aiming to replace the Soviet-made MiG-21. Feasibility studies identified the Rolls-Royce RB-1989 and General Electric F404-F2J engines as potential candidates, but the GTRE advocated for its indigenous GTX-37 engine, under development since 1982.

In 1986, a joint study by the Aeronautical Development Agency, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and GTRE evaluated the GTX-37. However, in December 1986, GTRE proposed the Kaveri engine for the LCA. A Rs 382.86 crore project was sanctioned in March 1989. Despite GTRE developing nine prototype Kaveri engines and four core engines undergoing extensive testing, including in Russia, they fell short of the required parameters, delivering only 70.4 kN instead of the necessary 81 kN 'wet thrust.'

A scathing 2011 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) highlighted a 642 per cent cost overrun and a 13-year delay in GTRE's inability to deliver an engine for the LCA. The report noted the project's potential joint venture with a foreign entity for further development.

The challenges weren't confined to combat jet engines alone; other critical projects faced similar trajectories. The Advanced Light Helicopter envisioned as an Indian-designed and produced aircraft, incorporated the Shakti engine, co-designed with the French firm Turbomeca, highlighting the intricate web of collaborations and obstacles in India's pursuit of self-sufficiency in defence technology.

The Kaveri Project

In a strategic shift, the Kaveri engine, despite setbacks in its application for combat aircraft, is undergoing a redesign for alternative uses, particularly in the realm of drones. An official emphasised that the technological advancements garnered from the Kaveri project hold substantial potential for the development of higher-thrust engines, such as those required for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) class.

However, the journey of India's jet-engine aspirations has been fraught with challenges, encompassing gaps in metallurgy, deficiencies in manufacturing infrastructure and test facilities, and constraints arising from the denial of critical technologies following India's nuclear tests. An official lamented that even close allies were reluctant to share pivotal jet engine technologies.

The multifaceted problems encountered in India's pursuit of indigenous jet engines, as noted by experts, ranged from issues in metallurgical processes to the lack of robust manufacturing infrastructure and adequate test facilities. Denial of crucial technologies post-nuclear tests added another layer of complexity to the predicament.

A significant hindrance highlighted in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was the shortage of appropriate scientific personnel. At the project's inception, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) had to nearly double its sanctioned manpower to meet objectives. This persistent challenge continues to impact the project, with shortages in scientific and technical branch personnel affecting progress, as noted by the CAG report.

In navigating the intricate landscape of jet-engine development, India grapples not only with technological complexities but also with the crucial human resource aspect, underscoring the multifaceted nature of the challenges involved in achieving self-sufficiency in this critical defence technology.

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