Scrapping Kaveri may lead to import bill shooting up by Rs. 1 lakh crore in the next 15 years

A Historical Perspective

Seven years ago, when Indian Aero-engineers walked into the Gromov Flight Research Institute in Moscow, they were shocked to see Chinese engineers there. The Indians had come to flight-test Kaveri, India's first indigenous jet engine. The Chinese, too, had come on a similar mission. And, the Indian engineers were worried whether the Chinese would beat them to it.

This article first appeared on IDN in July 2016

Worry was understandable, because jet-engine technology is even more exclusive than nuclear know-how. Only a few countries in the world know how to make jet engines. The market for tens of thousands of engines that power fighter planes owned by air forces across the globe is controlled by just a handful of companies—GE and Pratt & Whitney of the United States, NPO Saturn, Klimov of Russia, Rolls-Royce of the UK, Safran/Snecma of France and Eurojet of Germany. The dominance of these companies is almost complete, evident from the fact that even though Rolls-Royce admitted to have paid commission to agents in dealing with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the defence ministry could not do much because if Rolls-Royce stopped supplying engines, it would affect HAL's production of Jaguar fighter bombers.

Kaveri, which was developed at the Bangalore-based Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a lab under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), successfully completed the sub-sonic test in Moscow by flying a giant Ilyushin-76 aircraft. The Chinese test was a failure. Seven years later, however, it seems the Kaveri story is going to have a sad end, while the Chinese are making steady progress with their project.

Back from Russia, lack of funds significantly slowed down Kaveri's progress. GTRE had shortage of funds to even run the five prototype engines which have been produced so far. It was difficult to procure fuel for the engines. The Chinese story, on the other hand, turned out to be completely different. After their engineers returned with the failed engine, the Chinese government opened its purse-strings and invested more than $60 billion for developing its aerospace sector of which a significant portion was spent on the jet engine program. China has "gone crazy for making aircraft," says a recent white paper prepared by renowned aerospace scientist Roddam Narasimha.

Flush with funds, the Chinese burnt the midnight jet-fuel and put their WS-10 turbofan engine on a few prototypes of their J-10 fighters, and flew them. But they are still far from developing the engine for squadron service. India can also fly Kaveri sub-optimally, as the Chinese are doing, but we don't have test aircraft for that, until now.

Anyway, Narasimha's paper, had some effect on the then Manmohan Singh government. When GTRE asked for half a million dollars in the budget, the Babus returned the request, saying it was "sub-optimal", and with the advice to ask for more. This gave GTRE hope. GTRE can still catch up with the Chinese, because they have already addressed the issues on making the engine supersonic. GTRE needs only funds and the government's free nod to continue with the development of the platform.

But, the Narendra Modi government scrapped all DRDO development programs that face significant delays could end India's Kaveri dreams. Then DRDO's former Director-General (Aero) K. Tamilmani had reportedly described it as a bold move, saying the agency has realised its old mistakes and is taking steps to address them.

GTRE scientists, who made the engine, disagree. Indeed, the Kaveri program has taken long. The defence ministry told Parliament that the project was sanctioned in March 1989 at a cost of Rs. 382.8 crore, to be completed by December 1996. This was revised (in 2005) to December 2009. But GTRE scientists say similar engines produced by global manufacturers will cost almost three to four times. With Rs. 2,105 crore having been spent on the program so far and with over two decades of experience in the field.

According to GTRE scientists, Kaveri now needs to cover just the last mile. According to defence ministry estimates, India would be spending a whopping Rs. 3.5 lakh crore for its aircraft fleet, including the fifth generation fighter aircraft and the 36 French Rafale combat aircraft, in the next 10 years, of which the cost of the engines would be around Rs. 74,500 crore. Engines for the Su-30MKI fleet would require another Rs. 70,000 crore. Most of the money that India is planning to spend on these engines is likely to go to foreign countries, but the Kaveri would have helped the country in saving at least 30 to 40 per cent of the funds.

Scientists deny that India had to buy GE engines to power Tejas, India's first light combat aircraft, because of the delay in Kaveri. Nobody in the world puts an untested engine in an untested aircraft. Even if Kaveri was ready, HAL would have put some other engine in Tejas. It is always like that. The first engines are always put in proven aircraft and untested aircraft are always powered with proven engines. The first 40 LCAs are being powered by GE-404 engine whereas the DRDO has placed orders for more than 200 GE-414 engines for the LCA-MKII, which are scheduled to be ready by 2017-18.

There are unconfirmed reports that Kaveri is being designed also to power India's top secret unmanned combat aerial vehicle. It is almost certain that no country would supply engines for UCAVs. Since the UCAV would be a lighter plane, the present power of the Kaveri engine would be enough for powering it. The UCAV program, being worked on by DRDO and HAL, has been reportedly sanctioned Rs 7,000 crore.

Simultaneously, scientists working on Kaveri say they have tackled all technical issues in making the engine supersonic. They need to test it on a fighter such as MiG-29 or a SU-30MKI which may happen soon. They are confident that Kaveri has hit the home stretch. It just needs an aircraft, a few more months, some more money and little more patience to secure India's entry into the exclusive fighter jet engine club.

Taking Wings

The Kaveri project is being revived with French help for use on both the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Work is on with the French side to use the significant offsets on the Rafale fighter jet deal to fund a redevelopment of the Kaveri. French company Safran has to invest over $1 billion in India as part of its offset obligations for the Rafale deal. DRDO, thankfully is hopeful of flying the Kaveri Turbofan in the next edition of Aero India, this would mark as a significant and triumphant hallmark in India's quest for scientific and technological excellence. The Kaveri turbofan has a bright future ahead!

Beneath The Wings

GE and Pratt & Whitney of the United States and Rolls-Royce of the United Kingdom are the world's leading fighter-jet engine manufacturers. Other prominent engine makers include NPO Saturn and Klimov of Russia, Snecma/Safran/CFM of France and Eurojet Turbo GmbH based in Germany, run by a consortium of Rolls-Royce, Avio (Italy), ITP (Spain) and MTU (Germany).

Some of the leading engines and the fighters they power:


The F110 Family: Powers F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft of many countries
The F404 Family: Used in the world's first stealth fighter, the F-117. Also powers Korean T-50s, Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornets, SAAB Gripen multi-role fighters and of course our very own Tejas
The F414 Family: Powers Boeing Super Hornets and Growlers, MKII version of the Tejas light combat aircraft, Saab's next generation Gripen aircraft


The F119 Family: Powers the US Air Force's F-22 Raptors
The F135 Family: Powers the F-35 Lightning, the F135 family has several distinct variants; a conventional, forward thrust variant and a multi-cycle Short Take-Off Vertical Landing STOVL variant that includes a forward lift fan
The F100 Family: Powers various aircraft of 23 air forces around the world


RB199: Tornado multi-role aircraft operated by the UK, Germany, Italy and Saudi Arabia
Adour: SEPECAT Jaguars, Mitsubishi T-2s and F-1s, BAE Systems Hawk
Spey: AMX strike aircraft


AL-21: Powers Sukhoi Su-17s, Su-24s, Sukhoi T-10s and MiG-23s 
AL-31: All Su-27 derivatives and China's Chengdu J-10 multi-role fighters
AL-31F: Su-35BM and PAK FA


M88: Multi-role combat aircraft Rafale from Dassault Aviation
M53: Mirage 2000
Atar: Mirage F1s and 50s


EJ200: Eurofighter Typhoons


RD-33 Series: MiG-35s and Mig29Ks
SMR-95 Series: Super Mirage F-1s, Super Cheetah D-2s (of the South African Air Force)

IDN thanks Ajit K Dubey for this excellent piece on the future of the Kaveri Turbofan