Deriving Strategic Mileage from Turning India into an Aero Engine Hub
India’s Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, is making all out efforts to infuse fresh energy and new enthusiasm into the Indian aerospace sector which happens to be the inheritor of six decades of “missed opportunities and callous neglect”. However, bringing about a drastic transformation at the ground level to give much required “wings” to the hitherto slow moving Indian aerospace sector, is a complex and challenging task. Of course, there is a growing realization that it takes time to overcome the “hangovers of the past” to chart out a dynamic pathway of progress for the aerospace sector of the country. Significantly, under the much debated strategic initiative unveiled by the Indian Defence Ministry, aircraft and aero engines, occupy a place of prominence. But then the Indian industry is far from being well convinced about the strategic initiative in its current ‘avatar’.
Private Industry on Board
Basically, the strategic initiative is aimed at bringing major Indian private industrial entities that are active in the areas of defence and aerospace on par with the state owned DPSUs (Defence Public Sector Undertakings) and Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). The strategic partners chosen from among the Indian private sector industries, would be allowed to collaborate with foreign partners for technology development, research as well as production.
In an yet another major step aimed at boosting the prospects of the Indian aerospace sector and turn India into a power house of aircraft production, the Indian Government has cleared the lone bid of Tata-Airbus consortium for replacing the ageing fleet of Avro transport aircraft in service with the Indian Air Force(IAF). Indian Defence Ministry is fully convinced that this initiative would help create necessary ecosystem for the growth of the Indian aircraft industry. As part of this deal, Airbus will supply 16 C295 transport aircraft in fly away condition with the remaining 40 to be produced in India. As things stand now, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), a fully owned subsidiary of Tata Group, will undertake the structural assembly, final aircraft assembly and system integration of the aircraft at its facility in India. TASL will also be responsible for spares supply and maintenance of the aircraft.
The ‘Make in India’ Thrust
In a related strategic move, that could help boost India’s standing as a nerve centre of fighter aircraft production, Indian Defence Ministry has unveiled a plan for the domestic manufacture of ”one or more” fighter aircraft in the country. This is expected to spur competition among the global aerospace and defence majors to join hands with the Indian companies to initiate the process of creating a robust industrial capability in the country for the production of advanced fighter jets based on the ‘Make in India’ flagship programme.
Meanwhile, Boeing and Lockheed Martin of USA as well as Saab of Sweden, all of whom had actively participated in the MMRCA (Medium, Multi Role Combat Aircraft) contest, have come out with their own proposals to set up manufacturing facilities in India along with the transfer of relevant technology. For instance, Boeing, in partnership with an Indian entity, has offered to create an industrial complex capable of handling end to end aircraft manufacturing. Incidentally, for now defunct MMRCA contest, Boeing had offered a customised variant of Super Hornet named F/A-18IN.
On its part, US defence and aerospace heavy weight, Lockheed Martin, has said that it is willing to help manufacture F-16 combat aircraft in India. According to Phil Shaw,Chief Executive of Lockheed Martin India Pvt Ltd “We are ready to manufacture F-16 India and support the Make in India initiate” F-16 known as Fighting Falcon was in the race for bagging the MMRCA order. But then with F-16 already in service with Pakistan Air Force (PAF), India would need to evaluate the offer of Lockheed Martin with due circumspection.
Not to be left behind, Swedish defence major, Saab has offered to help India create a manufacturing facility for its advanced Gripen fighter aircraft. Saab was one of the contestants for the MMRCA tender. Saab has also offered to help India in the development of an upgraded version of Tejas and follow on fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Along with the expertise and infrastructure, which India acquired while realizing the fourth generation supersonic fighter aircraft Tejas LCA (Light Combat Aircraft), the synergy derived from the projects for manufacturing transport and fighter aircraft could be exploited to give a “new edge” to the development of aircraft featuring cutting edge technologies. As aerospace analysts point out, India should also exploit the opportunities offered by these projects to master the nitty gritty of engineering and manufacturing advanced aero engines. Turning India into an aero engine hub could imply a major technological leap forward for the country.
Quest for an ‘Indian’ Engine
Of course, India has attained certain level of maturity in taking up the challenge of developing a fighter aircraft power plant. For instance, the Kaveri turbo fan engine taken up for development to power Tejas,which though could not generate thrust sufficient enough to propel this home grown fighter jet, can be used in its scaled down form, to power UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles). By taking forward the Kaveri engine development with the infusion of state of the art technologies by harnessing the expertise built up by Indian industries and academic institutions, India could certainly create a technological platform to develop and produce a range of aero engines in different thrust class and catering to both civilian and military sectors. Of course, the plan to exploit the offset clause of defence procurement programme to get the latest genre engine technologies is very much on the cards. But to what extent, this development would help India acquire some of the elements of the frontier technology of aeroengine, only time will tell.
Interestingly, Parrikar, during his Dec 2015 visit to Washington, was informed by the US Defense Secretary, Ash Carter,that in the light of the strengthening relationship between the US and India ,the Department of Defense(DOD) has updated its policy on gas turbine engine technology transfer to India. This change in US policy posture is expected to allow US defence and aerospace companies to submit request for proposal for transfer of technology in the critical and closely guarded area of gas turbine technology to the Indian outfits. Whether this development would help India acquire the latest genre aero engine technologies to revive the prospects of Kaveri engine by boosting its thrust generating capability, only time will tell. As a sequel to the discussions initiated during Parrikar’s 2015 Washington visit, Carter during his April 2016 official visit to India along with Parrikar reviewed the progress while reiterating their commitment to pursue co development and co production of advanced defence articles under DTTI (Defense Technology and Trade Initiative). Significantly both of them commended ongoing discussions at the Jet Engine Technology Joint Working Group (JETJWG) and the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC). In particular they agreed to work towards greater cooperation in the field of cutting edge defence technologies including deepening consultations on aircraft carrier design and operations and jet engine technology.
In yet another small though significant step in India’s development of aero engine technology, on Dec.142015 Parrikar witnessed the inaugural run of 25-kN aero engine, Hindustan Turbo Fan Engine, HTFE-25, designed and developed by the Indian aeronautical major Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). The engine is designed for use in basic, intermediate and advanced trainer jets. The design and development of this engine was taken up by the Aero Engine Research and Design Centre (AERDC) of HAL for basic military trainer aircraft. HAL used its internal resources to design and develop this aero engines in a time frame of six years beginning 2013.In the first phase of the programme, the design of the full engine and manufacture and testing of the technology demonstrator of the core engine are covered. In the subsequent phases, the manufacture and testing of the full engines will follow.“The Air Force has already said that they would require 72 engines, however if they (HAL) do it properly it may be increased and they could also be exported” noted Parrikar.
According to HAL Chairman T.Suvarna Raju, the successful running of the 25-kN engine is one of the major milestones of HAL and tribute to the Make in India initiative of the Narendra Modi Government. “The engine can also be used on business jets and five tonne weight class aircraft in single engine configuration and on aircraft of up to nine tonne weight class with twin engine configuration,” said Raju.
HAL also announced the launch of a design and development project of a helicopter engine, the Hindustan Turbo-Shaft Engine, HTSE-1200. Parrikar drove home the point that India needs 4,000-6,000 copter engines over the next two decades. ”If you make it in the time frame allotted, it will be a big achievement,” noted Parrikar. Around October 2015,HAL had initiated the development of another aero engine, HTSE (Hindustan Turbo Shaft Engine)-1200. It can be used in a copter of 3.5-tonne in single engine configuration and helicopters of 5-8 tonne class in twin engine configuration. As things stand now,the two projects are expected attain fruition by the end of this decade and would help HAL meet the needs of HTT-40 trainer, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), Light Utility Helicopter(LUH) and futuristic versions of Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).
According to Dr. Tamilmani, a former Director General (aero systems), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India in spite of its aircraft manufacturing capability cannot claim self-reliance in aeronautics without its own engine. As such, there is a growing clamour to position India as a vibrant hub of latest genre aero engine technologies. India’s maiden attempt at developing a gas turbine engine Kaveri for the fighter aircraft is yet to reach its logical conclusion.
Not surprisingly, the Kaveri engine development programme now stands delinked from LCA Tejas programme. As envisaged now, it is planned to use an upgraded version of Kaveri to power the 20-tonne class AMCA being developed as a follow-up to Tejas. However, to meet the needs of AMCA, the Kaveri turbofan should be capable of generating 110-kN wet and75-KN dry thrust. This means the upgraded Kaveri will need to feature single crystal blade technology, integrated rotor disk and blades and super alloys of nickel and cobalt.Kaveri engine in its original configuration was based on the solidified blade technology
However, this time around, GTRE is better placed to take up the complex challenge of realizing a propulsion system good enough to drive AMCA. First, it has already on hand an engine capable of generating 70-kN thrust and experience in developing this engine from scratch. Secondly, the Indian industry is now mature enough to support the further development of this engine. In particular, the country has covered much ground in mastering the technology of high precision forgings and alloys required for building this high performance engine. However, the critical issue facing GTRE is how to enhance the power of Kaveri without increasing the size and weight by incorporating the single crystal turbine blade technology.
Flightpath into the Future
In order to quicken the pace of development of this engine, DRDO should set up a high altitude engine testing facility within the country. Since the country lacks the necessary level of expertise for setting up this sophisticated facility, DRDO should look at the possibility of harnessing the offset clause to rope in an OEM(Original Equipment Manufacturer) supplying defence hardware to India to create this facility in the country. This would help the country save time,money and logistics involved in ferrying engine on and off to Russia for subjecting it to high altitude testing. It may be recalled that Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was able to successfully test the home grown cryogenic engine constituting the upper stage of the three stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) after a high altitude test facility was set up at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu.
As things stand now, the development and qualification of an aero engine is a costly, complex and time consuming process and as such very few countries have succeeded in mastering the technology of gas turbine engine. India’s Ministry of Defence has identified a number of areas for the delay in the development schedule of Kaveri. They are: difficulties encountered in the development of state of the art gas turbine technologies, technical/technological complexities, lack of availability of critical equipment and materials and denial of technologies by advanced countries as well as the lack of availability of skilled manpower.
Clearly and apparently, an aero engine happens to be a vital missing link in India’s quest for mastering aerospace technology in its full spectrum. As it is, developing and producing aero engines indigenously could imply a big leap forward for the Indian aerospace sector that would also free India from its costly and continued dependence on global engine majors. Interestingly, China is also on the job of realizing a range of advanced power plants to propel its military aircraft. As envisaged now, future combat aircraft are expected to feature an advanced type of power plant, a variable cycle turbine that can operate in two specific modes—one for higher speed and one for fuel efficiency.
In a development that augurs well for mastering the advanced aero engine technology by the country, HAL has mooted a proposal to join hands with the public sector enterprise BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited) and DRDO. The idea is to set up a joint venture to design, develop and manufacture gas turbines for a variety of civilian and military applications. It is also planned to involve private industrial enterprises with experience in developing engines in the venture.
Both HAL and BHEL have expertise in licence producing gas turbines of a variety of specifications and fusing their expertise with the experience that DRDO has acquired while developing Kaveri engine could be a veritable ”force multiplier” to move ahead with the development of advanced aero engine technologies.
As pointed out by Dr. Tamilmani, there is a need for the creation of an autonomous body for the design, development, testing and production of aero engines of varying specifications. The amalgamation of expertise and competence available in both the public and private sectors as well as the academic institutions in the country should be fused to create a high tech platform for developing aero engines. Indeed to be able to move out of the syndrome of “dependence and import” India should demonstrate its technological excellence by producing at least one engine with enough parameters of thrust to weight capabilities. Around this engine, India must create a variety of platforms custom built to meet the needs of IAF. India’s vision document related to the indigenous aero engine development focuses on the facilities and infrastructure available within the country with suggestions on the initiatives for up-gradation with a view to match the development and service phase of the aero engine cycle.
Clearly and apparently, India should keep in step with the global trends in the development of fuel efficient and eco- friendly aero engines. In fact, the dynamics of global aero engine development has been influenced by factors such as carbon dioxide emission, need to decrease fuel consumption as well as noise footprint. By all means, aero engine developers are constantly challenged to come out with improved engines that are economical to operate while at about the same time making for a “clean sky.” All said and done, military aircraft power plants would remain technologically ahead of the civilian aero engines.
However, this is not to suggest civilian aero engine development programme is without innovation or advanced technology development. For instance, Pure Power aero engine with a gear box developed by Pratt and Whitney powers the A320 neo aircraft of Airbus. On the plus side, this engine makes for reduced fuel consumption,lesser noise and longer range. But the catch is that this geared turbofan engine needs a slightly longer period to cool down than was originally expected. Electric propulsion is one of the areas that shows promise of infusing a greater level of performance in aero engines. Similarly, use of improved materials could help in the development of lightweight, fuel efficient aero engines. For India, mastering the cutting edge aero engine technologies by keeping pace with global trends in this critical area implies a leap into the future “powered by upward thrust”.