Bangalore: India’s gas turbine research establishment will partner French company Snecma SA to build engines for Tejas, the country’s light combat aircraft, after efforts by the defence lab to develop an engine on its own faltered.
Snecma, a unit of Safran Group and earlier known as Société Nationale d’Étude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation, which won a race against Russia’s Saturn NPO OAO to co-develop the Tejas engine, would take at least four years to build and certify the engine before it is put in the home-grown fighter.
The technology would then be transferred to India’s military aeroplane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, or HAL, to make the engines locally.
No more waiting: T. Mohana Rao, director of the gas turbine research establishment which has spent nearly Rs1,900 crore of the Rs2,800 crore that was sanctioned for the Kaveri engine project. (Photo: Hemant Mishra / Mint)
“We don’t have the time now for the Kaveri to fully mature. In the co-development with Snecma, our R&D (work) also goes in,” said T. Mohana Rao, director of gas turbine research establishment, or GTRE.
GTRE has spent nearly Rs1,900 crore of the Rs2,800 crore that was sanctioned since an engine project Kaveri, named after the river in southern India, began in 1989.
After nearly two decades of development, Kaveri is overweight by around 150kg and cannot provide sufficient thrust from its core engine, required to power the fighter. A core—compressor, combustor and high-pressure turbine—is the heart of any jet engine. Air is compressed and mixed with fuel to drive turbines and create thrust.
“It would have taken another five to six years or more (for Kaveri) to achieve (the full performance),” said Rao. “We firmed the partner, so IAF need not wait longer.”
GTRE will open the commercial bid of Snecma and freeze the project cost once it finalizes with the Indian Air Force, or IAF, the so-called air staff requirements, which are the standards for the engine.
Vincent Chappard, a Snecma spokesman in France, said he could not immediately confirm the development.
Designing jet engines is complex and the technology, restricted. Only a handful of countries and firms such as General Electric Co., United Technologies Corp., Safran Group of France, Russia’s Saturn NPO, and Rolls-Royce Plc. have been able to dominate the market, globally.
India, which saw its indigenous fighter HF Marut, built in the 1960s, fail due to lack of a powerful engine that was caused by technology denials from the West, felt a need for a home-grown engine when it began the Tejas fighter programme in the mid-1980s.
The country’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, or DRDO, which anchors both fighter and engine development programmes, chose to fly Tejas with an General Electric engine, as any aircraft under development is flown with an engine that is already proven.
Tejas is a single-engine supersonic fighter with delta wings and no tail, and uses fly-by-wire technology that enables a pilot to control the plane electronically through on-board computers.
Tejas, which in Sanskrit means radiance, flew for the first time in January 2001 and is currently undergoing development trials. Since then, test pilots have flown 912 sorties on nine Tejas aircraft, including a production standard version that reached supersonic speed on its first flight on 16 June. Now, Snecma will bring in the core called “Eco” for the new engine, and integrate it with systems developed for Kaveri.
Analysts say global firms which denied India the same technology a few years ago, are sharing it now to tap into India’s growing economy, and the country should not hesitate in partnering with them.
“At some point of time, we need our own engine. This is a good development,” said Philip Rajkumar, a former head of the light combat aircraft programme and author of The Tejas Story, a book on the aeroplane’s development.
Meanwhile, the Aeronautical Development Agency, the aeroplane design lab of DRDO, has invited General Electric and Eurojet Turbo GmbH, a German engine maker in which Rolls-Royce has a stake, for higher-powered engines that would be modified for the Indian fighter, but has not settled on the vendor.
IAF has insisted new planes other than the initial requirement of 48 Tejas fighters should have a higher-powered engine.