By Ajai Shukla
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will no longer ask French aircraft engine builder Snecma to help it in resurrecting the indigenous Kaveri jet engine, which has reached a dead end in development.
Instead, major global aero engine manufacturers will compete in a global tender to partner the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) — the Bangalore-based DRDO engine laboratory — in refining the Kaveri engine to the level where it can power the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), an indigenous, fifth-generation fighter that is on the MoD’s long-term horizon.
“We are abandoning the plan for co-development with Snecma. We still need an overseas partner. But it will not be Snecma on a single-vendor basis. We will select our partner through competitive bidding,” says Dr CP Ramnarayanan, director, GTRE.
Business Standard, on a visit to GTRE in Bangalore, was briefed that the Kaveri still delivered significantly less power than what a modern fighter requires. In flight-testing last year at the Gromov Flight Research Institute (GFRI) in Russia, the Kaveri’s maximum thrust (termed “wet thrust") was measured at 70.4 KiloNewtons (KN). High-performance fighters like the Tejas or the AMCA need engines that generate at least 90 KN of thrust.
“To develop a more powerful Kaveri engine quickly and to become self-reliant in engine design, we need a foreign partner which can bring in core technologies. Otherwise the next cycle of engine development could take another 15-20 years,” admits Ramnarayan, frankly.
Developing a jet engine for a high-performance fighter was technologically more demanding than any other aircraft system. Only a handful of countries have been able to develop aircraft engines; China, like India, has not yet achieved success. The DRDO is struggling to develop the nickel and cobalt superalloys for the Kaveri turbine, where temperatures of 1,600 degrees centigrade warp normal metals.
Shaping the alloys into engine parts is an equal challenge. GTRE has learned how to make “directionally solidified” turbine blades; but it has not mastered the making of “single-crystal blades”, which are now standard.
The process for selecting a partner that has these technologies is under way. A DRDO committee is identifying specifications for the engine. Based on these, a Request for Proposals (RfP) will be issued to engine makers.
Meanwhile, as already reported by Business Standard (“Kaveri engine to fly futuristic unmanned aircraft”, December 26, 2012), GTRE is developing a spin-off Kaveri engine that will propel India’s first unmanned bomber, termed the Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle (USAV). The Kaveri’s current “dry thrust” of 50 KN will suffice for the USAV.
The refined Kaveri engine that will come out of the foreign collaboration will be used for the futuristic AMCA, but not for the Tejas fighters of the Indian Air Force (IAF), which will be powered by American engines. The first 40 Tejas Mark I are being built with the General Electric F-404IN engine, while the subsequent Tejas Mark II would have the more powerful GE F-414 engine.
“We were planning to re-engine first 40 Tejas fighters with the Kaveri. But now they will continue to fly with the F-404 engine,” says the GTRE director. DRDO has moved a paper to the MoD that strongly backs the Kaveri programme as the foundation of aero engine development in the country. The DRDO calculates that India’s aerospace requirements over the coming decade will include jet engines worth Rs 1,60,000 crore.
Major aero-engine development facilities are being set up in Chitradurga, where a 5,600-acre hub of strategic industry will house R&D, testing and production units of the DRDO, Department of Space (DoS) and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
These will include an official altitude test facility for aero engines, which US defence major Boeing is providing as an offset in India’s Rs 22,800 crore ($4.12 billion) purchase of ten C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft. So far, GTRE has had to do all its testing in Russia.