By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Dec 15
The defence ministry estimates that India will buy foreign military aero engines worth Rs 350,000 crore over the next two decades. While indigenising our military fleet, successive governments have neglected the development and manufacture of aero engines, which account for one-third the cost of a new military aircraft. Unless we build a significant percentage of our own engines, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar cannot succeed in his stated ambition to increase defence indigenisation from the current 40 per cent to 70 per cent within a decade.
Take the expense on engines for India’s on-going helicopter programmes. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) will build at least 400 Dhruv helicopters and about 180 light combat helicopters (LCH), both twin-engine choppers. Another 400 light utility helicopters (LUH), with single engines, will replace the current fleet of Chetaks and Cheetahs. Each LUH will consume 3 – 3½ engines over its service life, while the twin-engine choppers will each require 6 – 7 engines, adding up to some 5,000 Shakti engines over their service lives. At the Shakti’s current price of eight crore rupees, this adds up to Rs 40,000 crore. Add inflation and the cost of replacing components that fail, and the consumption of gaskets and bearings, and the figure would exceed Rs 50,000 crore.
India’s defence industry has done well to master aeronautical design, flight dynamics, control laws, avionics and other skills needed for building modern aircraft. Yet, for a variety of reasons, mostly relating to poor technical-strategic vision and planning, every aero engine flying in India is, and will continue to be, purchased from abroad.
The world’s big engine vendors --- America’s General Electric, Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney; Europe’s Rolls-Royce and Snecma; and Russia’s Klimov and NPO Saturn --- are happy to sell India aero engines. There are seldom technology-protection aspects to engine sales, because reverse-engineering them is very difficult. Key aero engine technologies relate to materials (high-temperature composites and alloys); and precision engineering, which are difficult to copy. Tellingly China, that master of reverse engineering, has not succeeded in developing a high-performance aero engine. The Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation has spent two decades working on the Taishan turbofan engine for the JF-17 Thunder fighter that Pakistan has inducted into its air force with a Russian Klimov RD-93 engine. Even after spending a reported $10 billion, the Taishan’s performance has satisfied neither the Chinese, nor the Pakistanis. Now Beijing is scaling up the effort, investing a reported $40 billion and training thousands of engine designers.
Yet, India has never prioritised aero engine development, and put vision, money and manpower into this. There was irony last week, when Mr Parrikar visited Bengaluru to inaugurate a new 25 kiloNewton (kN) engine built by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for its trainer aircraft. Overlooked was the fact that, three decades ago, HAL had developed a 25kN engine for upgrading its successful Kiran trainer into the Kiran Mark II. When that engine was nearing completion, the defence ministry decided to ground the (also indigenous) HF-24 Marut fighter. This made available the (slightly used) engines of 174 Marut fighters --- the Orpheus 703 engine, built by Bristol-Siddeley. Those 30 kN engines were de-rated to 25 kN and put into the Kiran Mark II. HAL’s indigenous engine went to the scrap heap.
Over succeeding decades, the engine development fiasco continued similarly, with the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) making only limited headway in developing the Kaveri engine for the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA). While the Tejas needs an engine with 82-90 kiloNewtons (kN) of peak thrust, the Kaveri has only managed 72 kN during flight testing in Russia. This is inadequate for a modern fighter, but the DRDO is still seeking a technological breakthrough with very limited resources. The total budget for the Kaveri, including on engineering and test facilities, has been limited to Rs 2,839 crore (defence minister to parliament in December 2012).
True, India cannot throw money at the problem the way Beijing can. But it does not need to, since it has a model to replicate --- India’s successful missile development problem. This involved clearly identifying an aim, allocating technological manpower and leadership, and spending about enough to keep the projects going. Even with a frugal approach, which is all we can afford anyway, a high-performance jet fighter engine project would require at least Rs 14,000-15,000 crore.
The defence ministry already has a working proposal for this. Prepared by the DRDO, it includes a detailed breakdown of the technological requirements; identifies the specific materials and technologies that must developed or obtained from abroad through partnerships; identifies the production technologies needed and essential test facilities.
Currently, when the DRDO needs to test the Kaveri, it is flown to Russia, along with a flight test team, to the Gromov Flight Research Institute outside Moscow. Here, it is fitted onto a Russian IL-76 aircraft and its performance evaluated in flight. Before flight tests, it must undergo ground checks at Moscow’s Central Institute of Aviation Motors, in simulated altitudes up to 15 kilometers (49,200 feet). Creating such flight-testing facilities in India would save hundreds of crores and a great deal of time.
Sadly, the defence ministry is not fast-tracking the proposal. It has been discussed internally, and with private sector representatives. It was decided that roles and responsibilities should be allocated to individual organisations and firms. And there the matter stands.
Mr Parrikar must move with alacrity to institute a strong management structure, like the “LCA Empowered Committee” that overseas the Tejas project. Chaired by the defence minister, this team would monitor and coordinate. Under this apex council should be an executive body, headed by DRDO’s aerospace director, with representation from all stakeholders, including private industry. This should oversee development, creation of test facilities and training of technological manpower.
The time is propitious. Earlier this month, during Mr Parrikar’s visit to the US, Washington conveyed its willingness to “expand cooperation in production and design of jet engine components.” This will open the doors to joint development between US engine-makers, particularly General Electric, and Indian entities like the DRDO. Tapping into America’s vast experience in this field would help the DRDO overcome some of the hurdles that have bedevilled the Kaveri programme.