The story is scarcely believable. Jawed Ashraf, the Indian ambassador to France, offered insight in January into ongoing talks regarding an aircraft engine contract between India and Safran, the second-largest aerospace equipment manufacturer in the world. Safran is an aerospace and defence equipment manufacturer that designs, develops, and produces aircraft and rocket engines, among other products. The aim is to synchronise the engine specifications with India’s forthcoming combat aircraft requirements. In addition to technology transfer, the agreement intends to address design, metallurgy, and other crucial aspects. In India, we call it a 100% transfer of technology and Intellectual Property Rights.
According to the diplomat, negotiations between Safran and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd aim to align the engine specifications with India’s future needs for combat aircraft. Ambassador Ashraf stated that India sought a comprehensive approach to technology transfer beyond mere manufacturing technology transfer. The agreement aims to deepen the design phase, metallurgical aspects, and other critical elements contributing to developing advanced jet engines.
The diplomat asserts that the negotiations between Safran and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. aim to harmonise the engine specifications with India’s forthcoming combat aircraft requirements. As stated by Ambassador Ashraf, India aimed to adopt a holistic approach to technology transfer that extended beyond the simple transfer of manufacturing technology. The agreement aims to enhance the design phase, metallurgical considerations, and other pivotal components contributing to advancing aircraft engine technology.
The ambassador underscored the ongoing nature of these discussions as part of the defence industry’s strategic plan. India and France decided in July 2023 to enhance their defence collaboration in advanced aerospace technologies through a collaborative effort to develop a combat aircraft engine. Additionally, they agreed to endorse industrial collaboration with Safran Helicopter Engine to power large helicopters as part of the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) programme.
The announcement was made after discussions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. Ross McInnes, president of Safran, met with Prime Minister Modi in April 2023 to discuss a technological partnership in the space and defence industries. Safran Helicopter Engines and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) also entered a task-sharing agreement to collaborate on the engine development for the forthcoming Indian multi-role helicopter (IMRH).
The French generosity surpasses that of the United States, which has reached an agreement to transmit the F414 jet engine manufacturing technology to India. Already supplying F404 engines manufactured in the United States for India’s Tejas aircraft, GE was awarded the contract in 2010 to supply the F414, a more potent variant designed for a new generation of aircraft.
The gas turbine aircraft engine is one of the highest technological creations of the human mind, and only a few countries in the world, only five, have such technology. It’s not likely that any country will give this technology to another government.
While France promised to provide major help and knowledge transfer for initiatives such as the Kaveri engine, it has consistently fallen short of achieving complete transfer. Unless reliable confirmation from the French government and clarity on the exact technology being transferred, claims of total jet engine technology transfer should be viewed cautiously. Partial support, consultation, or co-development might appear more credible. However, France’s decision to hand up its entire engine intellectual property to India appears exceedingly doubtful.
If you recall, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India issued harsh warnings in 2020 about foreign companies such as Dassault Aviation failing to meet domestic investment obligations when receiving procurement contracts. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has removed the offset provision from inter-government and single-vendor procurement of defence platforms.
So, either Ambassador Jawed’s insights aren’t understood, or they were misquoted. Or was it a trial balloon to sell the justification of Marcon attending the Republic Day Parade after US President Joe Biden said he wouldn’t? After all, announcing loudly and withdrawing silently is a trick in politics and diplomacy.
There are several reasons why designing and constructing gas turbine engines for aircraft is difficult:
Extreme working conditions: To generate sufficient thrust, aircraft engines must run at extremely high temperatures, pressures, and rotational speeds. This places significant demands on the materials and moving elements. Engine components must resist these extreme conditions for extended periods.
Efficiency: Aircraft engines must be exceedingly efficient in order to reduce fuel consumption. Even little efficiency gains necessitate extensive optimisations of engine thermodynamics and aerodynamics.
Reliability: Because aircraft engines run at such high power levels, they must be exceedingly dependable. Even slight blunders might have disastrous repercussions. This necessitates strict tolerances, redundant systems, and rigorous testing.
Weight: is always a factor in aircraft design. The engine must be as lightweight as feasible while still producing sufficient power. Achieving the ideal balance is tricky.
Noise: Aircraft engines must meet stringent noise requirements. It is difficult to reduce noise through engine design improvements while maintaining performance.
Emissions: Controlling the emission of gases such as nitrogen oxides necessitates complex combustion chamber designs and exhaust treatment systems.
Integration: The engines must be physically integrated into the aircraft architecture and systems.
To summarise, aircraft gas turbine engines push many parts of mechanical engineering to their limits, necessitating innovative solutions and advanced designs to fulfil the high demands of aviation. Even little changes necessitate significant work and invention.
Learning from Past Mistakes: Can India Finally Achieve Jet Engine Self-Sufficiency?
Since the 1980s, India has attempted to create a gas turbine engine dubbed Kaveri for the Indian Light Combat Aircraft Project. Several main factors contributed to the difficulty and delays in India’s Kaveri jet engine project:
Technological complexity: Developing cutting-edge jet engine technology demands decades of knowledge. India attempted to condense that time span, which resulted in technical challenges.
Lack of infrastructure and ecosystem: At the time, India lacked the specialised infrastructure, industrial ecosystem, and supply chains required to develop advanced jet engine technologies.
Integration issues: The Kaveri engine had difficulty properly integrating and operating with the intended LCA Tejas fighter aircraft, necessitating numerous design changes.
Materials technology: India failed to create the specific materials required to endure jet engine stresses and temperatures. Things like single crystal turbine blades were a challenge.
Funding instabilities: Over several decades, the project received intermittent funding. Budget cuts and changes make it impossible to ensure consistency.
Changing needs: Over time, specifications for the Kaveri engine’s thrust output and performance have altered, necessitating revision.
Sanctions: Following India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, sanctions were imposed, preventing India from gaining access to advanced engine technology.
Lack of experience: Indian engineers had no experience designing sophisticated turbofan engines. Knowledge had to be developed from the start.
After Decades of Delays, India Restarts Kaveri Engine Project
While the Kaveri did not meet its objectives, the knowledge gathered would benefit future Indian jet engine efforts with likely partners – Safran or Rolls Royce. However, overcoming all of these hurdles proved extremely challenging.
India recently restarted the Kaveri project. Initiatives are underway to restore and continue the development of India’s Kaveri jet engine project.
The Indian government invested over $140 million in 2017 to relaunch the Kaveri engine programme. Since then, additional funds have been provided. Developing the Kaveri, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) has overcome technical concerns and enhanced the engine’s performance. In 2018, French corporation Safran signed an agreement to provide technical help to the Kaveri programme, notably in high-tech sectors that previously presented issues for India. The Kaveri engine will be developed to power the Tejas Mk1A and Mk2 fighter planes. It is planned to generate 95 to 100 kilonewtons of dry thrust.
In addition to the Tejas, the Kaveri is planned to be the basic engine for more advanced future aircraft, such as stealth fighters and medium transports.
The knowledge acquired with the core Kaveri engine is being applied to the new Kaveri derivative engines in development, such as the Dry Engine for the Ghatak UCAV, now called Remotely Piloted Strike Aircraft (RPSA).
While delays are still anticipated, there is renewed hope that an operating Kaveri engine will be available over the next 5-7 years with this programme relaunch and outside technical support.
So, while prior challenges remain, the Kaveri engine programme appears to be making significant progress towards an indigenous Indian jet engine through consistent efforts.