Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) GTX-35VS Kaveri afterburning turbofan

by Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

The just concluded Aero-India 2019 held in Bangalore saw two developments of significance for India’s national security as well as for its apathetic aeronautics industry. On 20 February the IAF and the aviation community heaved a collective sigh of relief, as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk.1, received its long-awaited Final Operational Clearance, signifying that it was combat-ready and could be exploited to the limits of its approved ‘Envelope’. A day later, came a, rather unwelcome, report that the DRDO had announced, at Aero India, its decision to shelve the Kaveri turbo-jet engine project. While the authenticity of this report awaits confirmation, given the criticality of the Kaveri engine for India’s aeronautical industry, this issue deserves a close look. 

Historically, all major aerospace powers have possessed the capability to design airframes as well as power-plants. Until India can design and produce its own Aero-engines, the performance and capabilities of any indigenously designed/built aircraft will be seriously limited by the technology that we are permitted to import. India has already had two bitter experiences in this regard. The sleek and elegant HF-24, Marut, of the 1960s and 70s, failed to achieve its huge potential as a supersonic-fighter for want of a suitable engine. Rather than exert itself to seek alternatives, the government of the day in a stunning display of myopia, closed this program.

In similar fashion, most of the problems faced by the Tejas emanate from lack of engine thrust. Even as the Kaveri has failed to make an appearance, US made alternatives the General Electric GE-404 engine, or even the more powerful GE-414, do not deliver adequate thrust for the Tejas Mk 1, to meet all its missions. For the Tejas Mk IA, Mk II, the LCA-Navy, and successors like the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, India will need turbo-jets of even greater thrust. Thus, it is vital for India to develop a family of home-grown jet-engines, to power indigenous combat aircraft and re-engine imported ones.

In this context, it is necessary to recognise that both the Tejas and Kaveri projects, which have seen more than their share of headwinds and uncertainty, form key components of India’s technological aspirations. Unless carefully guided, protected and nurtured, their failure could spell the demise of India’s aeronautical industry. A long production-run of 250-300 aircraft for the Tejas, and its advanced derivatives is essential for the industry to hone its design and production skills.

The same holds true for the Kaveri, except that the design and production of a functional turbo-jet engine is even more challenging. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) claims to have, “manufactured” nearly 5000 Aero-engines of British, French and Russian design, and overhauled 18,000 of them. Since this putative “manufacturing” process involves merely the assembly of imported components, HAL’s several Engine Divisions have failed to imbibe aspects of design, metallurgy, thermodynamic and aerodynamic engineering as well as the complex tooling and machining process required for design and manufacture of aero-engines, over the past 60 years; a sad commentary.

In 1986, the DRDO’s 17-year old Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) was tasked to develop an indigenous power-plant for the LCA, which would replace the US engines being used for the development phase of the aircraft. Having, by then, developed two experimental engines, GTRE took up a turbofan design, designated the GTX-35VS ‘Kaveri’ for the LCA. Full-scale development was authorised in 1989 for 17 prototypes at a cost of USD 55 million. The first complete prototype Kaveri began tests in 1996 and by 2004, it had flown in a Russian flying test-bed, albeit unsuccessfully. Over the past 35 years, the Kaveri has made sporadic progress and GTRE has been struggling with serious design and performance issues, which it was unable to resolve. As the Kaveri missed successive deadlines, the US import option was, mindlessly and gleefully resorted to.

Given the DRDO’s penchant for secrecy and misplaced optimism, the true story of the Kaveri’s halting progress has never been revealed to Parliament or the taxpayer. However, two details, available on the Internet, are revelatory of the organisation's ‘Modus Operandi’. It has, at least, on two occasions, approached French Aero-engine manufacturers, SNECMA and SAFRAN for advice and consultancy. On both occasions, despite reportedly attractive offers of performance-enhancement and technology-transfer, negotiations, have stalled – reportedly on cost considerations. It is also interesting to note that in 2014, this project, of national importance, was arbitrarily shut down by DRDO, only to be subsequently revived for reasons unknown.

Without entering into an extended public debate, one can pinpoint egregious neglect, as well as absence of oversight and vision, at the political level, for repeated setbacks in these vital projects. Three other factors have contributed to the sorry state of affairs vis-a-vis the Kaveri (and the LCA): over-estimation, by DRDO, of its capabilities compounded by reluctance to seek advice; inadequate project-management and decision-making skills of its scientists and exclusion of users - the military - from all aspects of the project.

It is not too late for the government to declare both these projects as ‘national missions’ and initiate urgent remedial actions. Success of the Kaveri/Tejas will transform the Aero-space scene, and put India in the front ranks of aeronautical nations – perhaps even ahead of China if the desired degree of resolve and professional rigour can be brought to the fore. If we miss this opportunity, we will remain abjectly import-dependent forever in this vital area.

Admiral Arun Prakash served as the Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee from 31 July 2004 to 31 October 2006