Indian programmes for the development of indigenous fighter jets should not remain dependent on foreign-made engines. Whether co-developed or indigenously developed, India must have its own aero engines.
There is no doubt that self-reliance in the defence industry will enhance India’s strategic independence and promote domestic defence and aerospace industry. Government of India has rolled out several policies to encourage and motivate self-reliance in defence manufacturing. While the country is drastically reducing its import needs, it is felt that defence exports also need to be increased. India is significantly realising the need for self-reliance.
Aero engine is one of the most complex and investment heavy system to manufacture. Only the US, UK, France and Russia have the capability to manufacture aeroe ngines. Globally, the aero engine manufacturing technology is very closely guarded by nations. It requires a high level of expertise in the field of metallurgy and fluid dynamics, needing heavy and prolonged investments in research and development. The top global aero engine manufacturers include, CFM International (a GE and Safran JV), Pratt & Whitney, General Electric (GE) and Rolls-Royce besides the Russians. China too has been dependent essentially on Russian aero engines to power their fighter fleet.
One of India’s enduring challenges in aviation has been the inability of Indian industry and research agencies to design and produce an indigenous aero engine. Despite a well established eco-system for aero engine manufacture and repairs, technology gaps exist and qualified manpower is lacking. Without going into the history and causes of why the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) (established in 1960s) has not delivered the Kaveri engine till date, we need to look ahead and work on the way ahead.
India’s LCA Tejas was to be originally powered by GTRE Kaveri engine, however, due lack of progress, it was dropped and US-built General Electric GE F404 was chosen to power the first 40 LCA Tejas Mk 1. Further due to lack of any other option, it has been decided that it will power the 83 LCA Tejas Mk 1A for which the IAF has placed the order in 2020. The path ahead is very well spelt out, for the LCA Tejas Mk 2, GE F414 has been selected. The GE F414 is expected to be further upgraded for powering the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and the naval Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). The combined requirement of aero engines for fighter programmes is quite large and makes a strong case for undertaking aero engine development and manufacturing indigenously.
Shakti engine powers the indigenous ‘Dhruv’ Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and ‘Prachand’ Light Combat Helicopters (LCHs). Shakti has been co-developed jointly by Safran of France and HAL. It is a good success story and shows the path ahead that needs to be emulated for indigenous manufacturing of aero engines.
Also, in the Indian civil aviation sector, with the pandemic well behind us, is at a cusp of unprecedented growth. Air travel, both domestic and International is picking up. IndiGo, the biggest domestic airline has a fleet of 300 plus aircraft. Tata’s Air India is slated to buy close to 500 aircraft from Boeing and Airbus combined. As per various estimates, present Indian commercial aircraft fleet of 700 is likely to grow by 125 aircraft per year, leading to more than 1,500 aircraft over next decade. Sources indicate that the Air India deal is held up essentially because the major consortiums are reluctant to offer any meaningful discounts on aero engines and maintenance even for such a mega order. This makes all the more strategic and commercial sense to not only establish an indigenous Maintenance Repairs and Overhaul (MRO) facility for major fleets but also to collaborate with the aero engine manufacturers to jointly manufacture in India.
As seen, India has a substantial market for fighter aircraft and civil transport airliners. Indigenous development and manufacturing of aero engines and their MRO together constitute an important opportunity for enhancing indigenous aerospace industry. This can be achieved by establishing joint ventures with international manufacturers and by involving indigenous private companies. International manufacturers like Safran, General Electric and Rolls-Royce are known to be in touch with various stakeholders to collaborate for manufacturing in the country with private Indian companies. Government should think about setting aside a development fund for the AMCA compatible aero engine and the project be given on competitive basis with certain assured orders. Options are many and they need to be explored regarding obtaining access to aero engine technology. An early solution needs to be arrived to help India achieve self reliance in the aerospace sector in true sense. Without indigenous propulsion technology, true ‘Atmanirbharta’ in domestic aerospace manufacturing can never be achieved. This is crucial for the defence industry to achieve self-reliance and help the nation reach $5 trillion economy target in next two years.