The US has come back with its 2019 offer to jointly develop the AMCA jet engine with India shedding ‘export control’ concerns

The US has revived an offer to cooperate with India on the development of jet engine technology which could be used to power the MK-2 variant of India’s futuristic Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

General Electric (GE) of the US, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of jet engines, has submitted a proposal for the co-development of a 110 kN thrust engine with Indian agencies for the stealth fighter.

Technologies developed for a 116 kN thrust derivative of GE’s F414 engine will be the baseline in this offer of cooperation, Youngje Kim, GE Aviation’s vice-president for Asia-Pacific Region Military Systems Operation disclosed in an exclusive interview.

“All technologies previously asked for by the government of India will be offered,” Kim announced. India had earlier sought the core engine or hot section technology for jet engines under the India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) but was turned down.

Export Control Concerns

That effort failed after the US cited export control concerns in transferring this technology. A joint working group on jet engine technology under the DTTI framework was thereafter disbanded in October 2019.

The turnaround by the US now is total and coincides with two ongoing Indian fighter jet procurements from the global market and a take-off stage in indigenous development and production of potentially hundreds of fighter jets over the next two decades.

So, what drove the US capitulation? “The defence relationship with India is strategically important for the US. Things have changed,” said Kim, while indicating that cutting-edge capability of GE’s Jack Welch Technology Centre at Bangalore could be leveraged for the AMCA jet engine program.

Industry watchers read the US about-turn as a bid to retain its lead in powering India’s indigenous fighter jet program, a position it does not wish to cede to European engine makers. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS is powered by the GE-F404 engine, which has an 85kN thrust. India’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA)’s plans for the TEJAS MK-2, AMCA Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft and the Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) are also closely woven around the 98kN thrust GE-F414 engine. Several hundred of these aircraft will be produced.

Only when the AMCA program matures to the MK-2 level does the ADA envisage switching from a GE-F414 to an indigenous engine with a higher 110kn thrust. It is for the development of that engine that India is seeking foreign collaboration. The AMCA MK-2 production timelines commence around 2035. ADA also plans powering subsequent batches of the 26-ton TEDBF with the same indigenous engine as the AMCA’s.

The revival of the GE bid to co-develop the AMCA engine coincides with the development of an "Enhanced Performance Engine" or "EPE" variant of the GE-F414 for the US Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler fleet. The EPE includes a new core and a redesigned fan and compressor, taking up the thrust by 18 per cent to 116kN. This matches or exceeds the requirements for the AMCA Mk-2.

Sources also disclosed that the EPE will have the same dimensions as the original GE-F414 variant. Hence, no modifications will be required to the air frame for fitment or retro-fitment on the initial variants of the AMCA, the TEDBF and even the TEJAS MK-2. India, of course, doesn’t seek a hand-me-down solution but wants to gain knowhow and know why through this program to design, develop and produce jet engines on its own in the future.

Deal In The Making

GE’s progress has been steady. “We expect a contract for close to 100 F414-GE-INS6 very soon,” Kim said. This follows the recent government approval for the TEJAS MK-2 program. A $716-million contract was signed by the engine company with Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) in 2021 for 99 F404 engines as power plants for the 83 MK-1A variants of the homegrown fighter ordered by the IAF in 2021. Earlier, at least 41 F404 engines were ordered between 2004 and 2007 for the first two squadrons of the TEJAS MK-1.

Top military sources have confirmed that GE is being considered along with Safran of France and Rolls Royce of the UK for collaboration on the AMCA engine. These bids are being energetically supported by their respective governments.

“The options for a tie-up are open from among the three contenders. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is the lead agency and a private Indian entity is also likely to be involved in the program,” sources disclosed.

Industry is clear about the priorities. “The objective of this collaboration must be to develop capability to design and build engines on our own in future,” says industry veteran Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retired). He also sees merit in standardising the engine inventory for military jets and wants economies of scale leveraged for better price. “If there’s a big inventory for GE engines, it makes sense sticking to it, if the condition for meaningful transfer of technology is met,” says Singh.