F110-GE-400 afterburning turbofan produced by GE powers Lockheed Martin-TATA F-21 fighter
Can India find partners to develop indigenous engines for its fighter jets? Global jet engine manufacturers are circling Delhi, drawn by the prospect of massive purchases

There's a sudden roar of jet engines in the air. What is fuelling it is India’s airpower expansion plan and a pressing need for engines of required power for its homemade fighters.

Last week, US defence aircraft major Boeing announced in New Delhi that the company anticipates business worth $3.6 billion, benefitting the Indian aerospace and defence industry over the next 10 years, with the F/ A-18 Super Hornet as India’s next naval carrier-based fighter. French major Dassault Aviation has pitched its Rafale-M jets against the US’s Super Hornet.

In the first week of July, Olivier Andries, CEO of France’s SAFRAN Group, met defence minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi and apprised him of his company’s long-term goal for the joint development and production of advanced jet engines. SAFRAN—one of the major original equipment manufacturers (OEM) of military and commercial jet engines in the world—makes engines for the Rafale jets. Its SNECMA-M88 engine, used in Indian Rafales, has a maximum thrust of about 75kN (kilonewtons).

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has opened its hunt for 114 multi-role fighters while the Navy needs approximately 30 carrier-based fighter jets. Their combined value? Some $20 billion. The IAF also requires close to 600 India-made fighters for its fleet, all of which would require over 2,300 engines, assuming a spare ratio of 1.5 engines/ installed engine. Moreover, the Sukhoi fleet of 282 jets will also go in for engine retrofit in the years to come. Importing all these engines will involve a significant spend of India’s foreign exchange.

This immense business opportunity has global aerospace players making a beeline for India with jet engine technology, which has been closely guarded so far. And the fiercest contest is between the US and France. Foreign players are willing to sell or indigenise their products to meet Indian requirements, but their offers are conditional on large orders.

India has proved its mettle in developing nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers or even fighter jets, but any progress in combat jet engine development has remained elusive. India’s quest for combat jet engines has been fraught since the days of the first indigenous jet fighter, the HF-24 Marut in the 1960s. The same issue has dogged the TEJAS LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) program and the ongoing development of a fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Very few countries—the US, France, the UK and Russia—have succeeded in mastering the complex technologies needed to produce engines for combat aircraft. China is still using Russian engines for its J-20 fighters due to the lack of required thrust in its own WS-10 engines that were developed with a massive budget. Since 1986, India has developed nine prototypes of its Kaveri engine, which have failed to meet the required parameters to power a fighter. The Defence Research and Development Organisation’s ‘Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), tasked to develop the Kaveri engine, has been unable to deliver one that could power the TEJAS despite a cost overrun of 642 per cent and a delay of about 13 years’, the Comptroller and Auditor General noted in its report released in 2011.

India’s mainstay TEJAS flies on American General Electric (GE) F404 engines, and the TEJAS MK-2 and AMCA, now under development, will be powered by GE’s F414 engines. IAF would require nothing less than 170 TEJAS MK-2, which is equivalent to six squadrons. In addition, it has also agreed to induct seven squadrons of AMCA. GE is expected to set up a plant in India to manufacture F414 engines in collaboration with HAL and other private players. The company has agreed to transfer manufacturing technology and production engines but is awaiting the US government’s nod. The Super Hornet is powered by two GE F414-400 afterburning turbofan engines while the French Rafale-M will have SAFRAN’s M88 engine. But India’s military planners believe if the country is looking at jets for 20 years, it needs to take an immediate call on engine manufacturing.

“You cannot design an aircraft and then go hunting for an engine. It has to be a close association between engine manufacturers and aircraft designers. And if you do it independently, the mismatch will always be there,” says a key defence official.

For the TEJAS, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) had to settle for GE-F404 engines (90kN), reducing the aircraft’s payload and range. Similarly, the GE-F414 engine with 95-98kN power thrust, planned for TEJAS MK-2, is sub-optimal for the IAF’s specifications in the medium-weight fighter class of 15-18-ton range—to enable a 5-ton combat payload and a range of 600 km on internal fuel, says a key IAF official, who was in the LCA’s development team.

The ADA, also the developer of AMCA, is looking for 110 kN thrust—which is not yet available globally—to meet the requirements of supercruise features in its upgraded version, the AMCA MK-2. It is expected to go into production from 2035 onwards. The TEJAS MK-2 is supposed to replace the IAF’s 16 fighter squadrons, including three of Mirage-2000, five of the MiG-29s, six of the Jaguar strike aircraft and the two remaining MiG-21 Bison squadrons. With this calculation, IAF is looking at a combat strength of about 40 squadrons by 2040.

After Kaveri’s failure, the TEJAS makers had no option but to turn to foreign engines. In 2005, GTRE sought a foreign hand for the co-development with an international engine-house for a 90kN class engine. But the plan never worked. In 2012, France offered complete transfer of technology (ToT) for a redesign and fixing of the Kaveri engine to fit into the TEJAS. But the deal could not go through due to its high price.

T Mohan Rao, the former head of GTRE, who was closely involved in the Kaveri project, says, “We had reached up to achieving 70 per cent of technology, but for the remaining, we required handholding by a foreign player.” Though there are nearly 40 aircraft manufacturers in the world, only three countries—the US, Russia and France—have the technology to completely design, develop and produce military aircraft engines, he adds. The Kaveri program has been shelved except for the possibility of using the engine for the Ghatak armed drone.

Interestingly, the US has revived its earlier proposal for collaboration on jet engine technology under the India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, which was suspended in October 2019 owing to American reluctance to share technology. TATA is already in partnership with GE to produce parts for a civilian jet engine.

Similarly, France’s SAFRAN has already partnered with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to make the indigenous Shakti engine for helicopters. Days after the Rafale deal in 2015, SAFRAN pitched a technology transfer of engines as part of the offset clause, but it didn’t take off. British firm Rolls-Royce, which has allied with HAL, is now keen on the co-development of a 110 kN engine for the AMCA. Kishore Jayaraman, president, India and South Asia, Rolls-Royce, says India is a key growing market for the company. “We continue to work closely with the MoD (ministry of defence), DRDO, HAL and the private sector to explore opportunities to create in India products and solutions for the Indian defence sector,” he adds.

SAFRAN offers complete ToT for design, development and manufacture at close to $5 billion. It will provide everything for engine manufacturing, from know-how to certification. Satish Kirtikar, former vice president of Safran Aircraft Engines, claims that India can achieve independence in aircraft engine technology only if it is able to purchase the “knowhow and know-why” from a foreign OEM. But this ToT will come with a heavy price tag. Kirtikar says that private players in India will have a hard time entering the aerospace and defence arenas, justifying huge investments to their boards, with the returns on investments taking at least seven to 10 years to yield any sizeable returns. “Besides, these businesses will require work guarantees over an extended period of time to set up their facilities,” he explains.

India’s military planners have to make some hard choices: between Atmanirbharta and dependence. Only then will its ambitions take flight.