South Asia and Beyond

Self-Reliance In Aircraft And Helicopter Engine Technology—The India Story

 Self-Reliance In Aircraft And Helicopter Engine Technology—The India Story

NEW DELHI: On 15 August 1947, India was born with a handful of ordnance factories built during British rule to manufacture arms and ammunition to meet the requirements of the Raj. It resulted in a heavy dependency on imports to furnish the Indian armed forces with the requisite capacity and capabilities to defend the newly born nation starting with the 1947 war with Pakistan. India fought all the conflicts, apart from the 1999 Kargil conflict, with its neighbours with comparatively obsolete or aged equipment and technology. It is the valour of the Indian armed forces and leadership on the battlefield that always carried the day.

In the contemporary world, with munitions being fired from stand-off ranges and manoeuvres assisted by unseen assets, especially air and space, there is an unprecedented requirement for state of the art and indate generational equipment. The gap between the ability of India’s defence industry to provide such equipment is large, and most of it stems from the absence of a sound domestic defence industrial base which can provide such equipment.

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The past bi-polar global security relations and bracketing of India with the erstwhile USSR, internal prioritised budgeting, and the inability of defence related Public Sector Units to bridge the gap, especially hi-technology equipment, has landed India with a military capable of defending the nation, but with huge gaps, which are filled by procuring expensive assets. Although there are efforts on by a now-growing domestic defence industry to fill the gaps, there is a long road ahead.

Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and the engines that propel them fall in the category of state of the art and indicate generational equipment. India’s quest to manufacture a fixed-wing aircraft designed and built in India predates that of a helicopter and can be considered partially successful with the Tejas series, while the manufacture of a helicopter is a more recent story.

Notwithstanding the various variants that have been tested and are currently in service, like the Advanced Light Helicopter, the helicopter engine remains a more elusive equipment. The story of the Kaveri engine that was to power the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas project is well known. The designing and development of a turbofan for the engine started in 1986 by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation met a series of setbacks, including technology challenges fuelled by the gambit of international relations and sanctions that arose from the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India.

These sanctions imposed a stop to the transfer of critical technology and components by the USA. The same applied to missile engines, and in 1992, the U.S.-led global sanctions on the Indian Space and Research Organisation. Interestingly India had explored a U.S. engine for its missile programme three years before the ISRO sanctions but had rejected the deal due to the high price and no offer for technology transfer. Today, though any deal may seem to revolve on the issues of cost and amount of technology transfer, the security environment and relations based on strategic partnerships provides a better platform to engage in developing an indigenous aircraft and helicopter engine manufacturing industry.

A helicopter engine is considered a more complex piece of equipment as compared to an aircraft engine; hence it would require more due diligence from the domestic stakeholders, especially the industry. After Prime Minster Modi’s visit to the U.S. and France, India has two offers on the table. The U.S. offer to co-produce General Electric’s F-414 engine with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited can be considered a starting point for India’s own efforts. However, two aspects must be kept in mind. First, General Electrics in 1986 had worked on India’s LCA project with the Aeronautical Development Agency and the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited first with the F-404 engines and then with both F-404 and F-414 engines.

A General Electric press release dated October 1, 2010 mentioned delivery of the F414-GE-INS6 engine for powering the Tejas, and the same engine once again finds mention in some reports regarding the latest agreement. Hence, arises the question of the vintage and variant of the F-414 engine technology being offered.

Secondly, how much technology transfer would be considered, and what exactly would co-production entail? The devil is always in the details, and India should maximise gains from the offer.

The agreement with France looks at manufacturing engines for both aircraft and helicopters, which is part of Horizon 2047 that looks at setting up a roadmap to steer the bilateral relationship up to 2047.

Apart from other military hardware, the agreement looks at supporting industrial cooperation for the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter programme planned to be powered by a Safran engine. This engine is expected to be developed with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, with technology transfer a part of the agreement. Like General Electric, Safran has a presence in India and has been engaging the Indian defence industry. Safran has a foothold in the helicopter engine industry in India and is the leading supplier of turbine engines for helicopters flown by the Indian armed forces, with more than 1500 helicopter engines in service.

The Shakti engine, co-developed by Safran and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, was initially selected for the Advanced Light Helicopter and could also be used in the Light Combat Helicopter. Interestingly, as per the Safran website, there is a joint venture between Safran and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited that produces components for CM56 and LEAP engines for CFM International, which is a 50/50 joint venture between Safran and General Electric.

Though these engines are for commercial aircraft, it may complicate India’s approach, and to avoid a possible conflict of interests, both present and future, between the U.S. and France, India would have to tread a balanced path to ensure that the maximum is extracted and a path towards indigenous engine manufacturing is started.

India has diversified its arms and technology imports based on its approach to strategic autonomy and growing strategic partnerships with several nations. French deals are considered a package deal with little to no caveats, especially where delivery of ordnance is concerned. Both these agreements would be a shot in the arm towards atmanirbharta and would also keep India’s options of best choices open. Hence, while negotiating the finer details, India would have to ensure that the dice in the gambit of international relations and strategic autonomy always rolls out a six.

(The author is Distinguished Fellow, United Service Institution of India. Views expressed in this article are personal. This article appeared first on our sister website


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