The three decades’ dream of India to develop jet engines in India for its ambitious fighter jet programme will soon be a reality. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has instructed the officials to conclude negotiations with France to develop a new fighter aircraft engine at the earliest jointly as early as possible, recognizing it as an essential component of New Delhi’s ambitions of self-reliance in terms of military equipment.
As the country reaches a significant phase to develop the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)- the 5.5 gen aircraft, the dreams of India’s own jet engine have also inched forward. The ministry, which has instructed the authorities to seal the deal with French company Safran, has set a deadline of one month to conclude the talks, which are long pending. The delay has primarily been due to differences in the financing of research and development expenses for a new jet engine.
For AMCA, India requires a 110-Kilonewton-powered engine. The country was in discussions with France to leverage some of the offsets accruing from the Rafale fighter aircraft deal towards the project.
Last year, the Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, said that after talks with his counterpart Florence Parly, France had agreed to develop an engine for the military in India under the strategic partnership model.
French will jointly own IPR
India will invest nearly €1 billion in the programme, but we will still share joint intellectual property rights with France for the engine. The negotiations for developing a 110kN engine to power India’s 5.5-generation advanced medium combat Aircraft jet are currently being finalized by French engine giant Safran and India’s gas turbine research establishment.
The main points of dispute in all recent negotiations between Safran and GTRE have been intellectual property rights and technology transfer for the engine’s core. While Safran will continue to have joint IP rights on the majority of ToT that will occur in the core engine, Safran has been guaranteed ToT for the core engine, including the right to carry out enhancements and upgrades of the crucial components throughout engine service life in production.
When it has a pre-production engine seven years after signing the contract, Safran will use the Dassault-owned Rafale fighter jet as a flying testbed for the engine programme and will initially manufacture three core and four prototype engines at its facility in France, where the GTRE team will be assigned.
Production in Pipeline
As per media reports, the new fighter jet engine complex led by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is in the making, with advanced discussions with French manufacturer Safran for its co-development.
Being set up to reflect a national mission for achieving critical jet engine technology, which only a countable number of nations possess across the globe, the initial assessments were that an engine for the next-generation combat aircraft could potentially be manufactured within seven years of the project being sanctioned.
Transfer of Technology
Safran has offered a complete transfer of technology (ToT) for the development of the engine while using the offset credits from the Rafale deal. The discussions for using part of the €3.5 billion offset commitment to obtain the jet engine technology have been going on since 2016.
The Rafale deal was €7.8 billion. France is offering to spend €1 billion of its offsets credit to revive the development of the indigenous Kaveri engine. Indian jet-engine scientists and the Indian Air Force (IAF), this deal is a heavily painful reminder of the nation’s failure to produce a combat jet engine of its own.
After it emerged in detailed studies that a part of the offsets amounting to a little over €250 million could potentially be used for the project, and the remaining €500 million will be raised by the government. But the talks had hit an impasse. Now, efforts are underway to discover a way to take the project ahead by reducing these costs.
According to rough estimates, for a fleet of around 200 Light Combat Aircrafts (LCA) in service, the entire cost of the engines alone would exceed €25 billion over the life cycle of the fighters.
India’s quest to master fighter jet technology
New Delhi’s hunt for its own combat jet engine was given a structure due to the problems witnessed by the HF 24 Marut, India’s first indigenous fighter aircraft.
The Bristol Orpheus 12 engine was to power this jet. India was forced to accept a less-powerful Bristol Orpheus 703 engine after the fall of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) project.
Eventually, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) in Bengaluru developed a variant of the Orpheus 703 with afterburners that significantly enhanced the engine’s power. Yet, the engine was unfavourable for the Marut’s airframe, making the otherwise-excellent aircraft obsolete before its time.
The Indian government in 1983 sanctioned work on the multi-role Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). This fighter jet was aimed to replace the Soviet-made MiG-21.
It was revealed by feasibility studies abroad that no suitable engine was available. The General Electric F404-F2J and the Rolls-Royce RB-1989 engines met the requirement.
Since 1982, the GTRE had been working on the indigenous variant of the GTX-37 engine, which was pushed forward for adoption on the LCA. In December 1986, the GTRE proposed the development of the indigenous Kaveri engine for the LCA. At the same time, the GTRE developed around nine prototypes of the Kaveri engine, which were unsuccessful in meeting the required parameters to power a fighter aircraft.
The Kaveri generated a thrust of only 70.4kN instead of a ‘wet thrust’ of 81 kN, which an engine delivers at a time when the jet needs the maximum power.
A vast number of other crucial projects walked the same path
For instance, the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) was targeted as an Indian design and an Indian-produced helicopter. The Shakti engine used by the chopper was co-designed with the French firm Turbomeca instead of being fully indigenous.
A desperate need for test beds
Due to the ongoing semi-war in Ukraine, New Delhi’s quest for testing its Dry Kaveri engine on the Russian IL-76 Flying Test Bed received a setback. However, the prayers to have our own Flying Test Bed may be answered soon if the proposal-in-making gets accepted by the Indian Ministry of Defence.
It has been a decade since GTRE has requested that its IL-76 Transporter be converted into a Flying Test Bed for engine trials. The organization also wants one used Mig-29 fighter aircraft to be used for the final certification trials. But, both the proposals were put on the back burners after the Kaveri program was delinked from the LCA Program in 2008.
The Dry Kaveri engine developed by the GTRE generates a thrust of 46 kN. It is currently waiting for further High Altitude Trials before getting clearance for use in experimental flights. GTRE and Safran will soon jointly develop a 110 kN power plant dedicated to India’s 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft AMCA. Safran has proposed to use Dassault Rafale as a Flying Test Bed for the same.
Regarding other spinoff programs, the GTRE has a proposal for developing downscaled and upscaled variants of the jet engine while it is still pushing for its Flying Test Bed. Open sources claim that Ex-Air India Boeing 747s (previously utilized for ferry purposes for the VVIPs), which have not been transferred to Tata-owned Air India, were a potential candidate to convert into Flying Test Bed. However, the 747 fleet worldwide suffers from a lack of fleet and spares. Considering their advanced age of 30+ years already, this will become an important factor.
An alternative proposal that was under consideration suggested purchasing a used Airbus A340 aircraft. This is a four-engine aircraft, meaning it has room for an additional safety margin.
Media reports claim that the downscaled and upscaled variants of the jet engine still need a mandatory 30 to 40 hours of initial testing. They also require around 50 to 70 hours of accumulating testing. This signals that each spinoff shall need about 75 to 80 hours of fresh testing for each version of the engine before the certification agencies have cleared it in the country for use on the proposed aircraft program. DRDO spoke about the spinoff program, which can be created from the 110 kilo Newton thrust. It further involves a Futuristic Dry Engine, Turbo Fan engine (Transport aircraft), Marine Gas Turbine engine, Uprated 130kN Class engine for future (6th Gen), Turbo-shaft engine (Helicopter), and a TurboProp engine.
The GTRE has argued that it must install nearly 1000 pieces of an experimental instrument measuring pressure, temperature and engine controls on the Russian IL-76 Flying Test Bed every time before going to Moscow. The GTRE also requires Flying Test Beds for future engine developments. Other experimental engines are also required to study the performance data on various isolated components. This would enable its reconciliation for future products.
It is unclear if GTRE will get its Flying Test Bed this time since the idea is still at the proposal stage, and talks with Safran are picking up. On the other hand, collaboration with Rolls Royce is also being considered for a separate program.
Fighter jet engine challenge across the globe
Only a handful of countries across the globe have successfully mastered the complex technologies required to manufacture jet engines for combat aircraft.
The capability of manufacturing combat jet engines, in some senses, stands as a true challenge to a country’s military-industrial base. The US, Russia, the UK and France have developed advanced engines. Germany and Japan also possess the technology to do so. China claims to have developed an advanced fighter engine. Therefore, other than a handful of select countries, few have successfully produced fighter jet engines.
India’s current stand
The country has successfully manufactured power plants for missiles and the space program. However, progress on producing an indigenous fighter jet engine has been elusive.
According to the government officials, New Delhi is now walking its path of jointly working with France to manufacture a new jet engine that would suit the future aircraft of both nations. Last year, British firm Rolls-Royce was also keen on working with India on the co-development and producing engines for the AMCA fighter jet.
However, the Indian government seems interested in making a deal with France a reality- to deepen ties with a country that stands among India’s most crucial providers of cutting-edge military technology.