Why is India unable to design a jet engine for fighters?
Great nations project power through concentric circles of technological superiority. Each circle smaller than the one preceding it with increased exclusivity.
For instance, nations that have mastered space launch, advanced electronics, and nuclear technology sit around in a much smaller inner circle, while those that are merely consumers sit outside, on a larger one.
Jet engine designs, optimised to the peculiarities of India’s specific atmospheric conditions including particulate profile, temperatures and weather, will be difficult to deploy. A lack of jet engine development prowess will continue to haunt India as truly disruptive technologies such as hypersonic flight and weapons begin making their way into production.
Interestingly, although air breathing aircraft jet engines are in many ways related to other aviation and rocket engines such as ramjets and scramjets, they are still quite distinct. Mastery of the rocket engine may not guarantee mastery over the aviation jet engine. Jet engine’s longer life cycle, rotating parts, human payload, and maintenance make it significantly more challenging to design and engineer.
Aircraft design and development is a very costly enterprise. The fixed costs involved in design and manufacture of new aircraft for the companies involved in design and manufacturing is very high. This is so even if the government carries some of the financial burden. However, despite the consequent reduction in cost, designing and building a modern state-of-the-art fighter aircraft such as the F-18 cost the design and manufacturing companies about US $ 5 billion in 1975.These costs remained much too high for manufacturers to bear.
The Indian Aircraft Industry is dominated by one big public sector player—Hindustan Aeronautics limited (HAL). Starting out as a private company, HAL was nationalised at the time of independence. It is involved in both designing and manufacturing aircraft. Alongside HAL, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is responsible for research and development.Until the economic reforms of 1991, private players were not allowed to operate in the aircraft industry in India. Since then a few big businesses have expressed interest in entering into this field. A few more government owned and run organisations exist such as the National Aeronautics Laboratories (NAL) and the Aircraft Development Agency (ADA). Being government-owned and run as part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), these organisations suffer from the ills of bureaucracy and reliance upon the government for funds and clearances for R&D. Moreover, projects are mostly undertaken only when a specific requirement is projected by the user to the government. This situation leads to difficulties in retention of expertise and lack of regular R&D in cutting-edge technologies. HAL and DRDO have had some success in the design and manufacture of trainers such as the HT-2 and HJT-16 both of which saw extensive service with the IAF. Fighter projects such as the HF-24 Marut did not meet full designed performance expectations due to the non-availability of engine.
Jet engine requires high end processed superalloy materials and high technological infrastructure to build which cost crores and crores of money. Jet engines are used in supersonic jets, aircraft, turbo craft vehicles, static industrial machines, etc
Jet engines are one of the most challanging and complex machines ever made…they are really engineering marvels. Best fighter engines are produced by only a couple of companies in the world with decades of experience
India cannot ask ‘whole’ world to give this sophisticated technology because only a handful of nations could manage to develop modern fighter jet engines after decades of experience, trial, huge expense, infrastructure and ambition. Fighter jet engine is one of the most challenging machines ever made.
Even China couldn’t even copy an old British jet engine for 3 decades and they had to restart their jet engine project from scratch. And they are now in advanced stage of developing a modern fighter turbofan jet engine. China, who is an industrial and manufacturing giant, is NOT a giant in this field but a learner.
Coming to the case of India.
It was only in the 1970s, India really started exploring high level technological frontiers. In this period, India started nuclear and space program and got remarkable success. In 1980s, India started building its first supersonic fighter jet plane ‘Tejas’ (India previously developed a subsonic one also called ‘Marut’ and 147 no. of it served in IAF and fought in 1971 war) and now the first version of it (Tejas Mark 1) is ready. Yes, a remarkable feat because, again, most nations can’t even think of developing a fighter jet indigenously. Let alone an engine which is the most complex part of the fighter.
Tejas doesn’t have an Indian engine. Our ‘Kaveri’ engine was supposed to power Tejas but it remained a failure. We can say, only component in which India failed in Tejas project.
An overview of the Kaveri situation was provided by the GTRE director, T. Mohan Rao
1- He pointed out the major factor in delays being them not being given enough infrastructure and testing facilities – Govt has not given funds, babus have sat on them. Instead, they have had to go to CIAM in Russia and Anecom in Germany for tests
2- He mentioned 4 key areas where we lack
a. BLISK – integrated single Blade and Disk
b. Single Crystal blades – he categorically said – We do not have that tech at all.
c. Thermal Barrier Coatings – TBC – very critical for high temp engine operation. A talk on this by an American Indian prof attracted a house full audience. He mentioned that this is highly critical and export controlled, so they dont have it.
Kaveri is a working engine. It has drawbacks to use in fighter jet like Tejas but that doesn’t mean the engine doesn’t run. Kaveri’s main problem is thrust generation is less than required and little overweight.
- In recent times the engine has been able to produce thrust of 70-75 Kilo Newton but what the IAF and other stake-holders desire is power between 90—95 KN as stated by GTRE (a lab under DRDO, responsible fo Kaveri project) director T. Mohan Rao.
- Mohan Rao appealed that people should realize that this tech takes time and money and more importantly, willpower and support…. its not being given by foreign nations so if we have to develop it needs support,all though he said that We have a functional engine, but there is a slight shortfall in performance. It has achieved dry thrust of 4,600kg and reheat thrust of 7,000kg in Bangalore, which is around 3,000ft above sea level. So, it would be around 5,000kg dry thrust and 7,500kg reheat thrust at sea level. The engine is short of thrust by 400kg and overweight by around 150kg. Also, we still have to perform long- endurance tests of the engine to run for many hours.