National Policy on Aero engines - need of the hour

National Policy on Aero engines - need of the hour

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 10:55
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Bengaluru, June 22

India’s quest to successfully design and develop an indigenous gas turbine engine that can meaningfully power military and civilian aircraft has been on for well over half a century. And indications are that this quest is still a bridge that isn’t going to be crossed too soon. A day-long seminar held in Bengaluru - India’s aerospace capital - highlighted the many failures, the inadequacies and the various steps that have been taken to cobble together an engine programme.

At present many of India’s public agencies and laboratories such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), National Aerospace Laboratories, and a few players in the private sector have their own activities to develop engines for small and pilot-less planes, trainer aircraft and helicopters. But these efforts have not fructified in anything close to what India needs if it is to be self sufficient in engine technology. For quite a few years now many aviation pundits have voiced their collective opinion that these efforts could be dovetailed to get better results. There is little doubt that the government has to set in place a concrete and workable action plan / road map that will help develop an indigenous aero engine.

Development of aero engines entails large timeframes, massive financial investment in research and development, testing facilities and human resources. And, has a high risk factor to boot. With India buying a huge amount of military hardware from a number of international defence players it could also try to leverage for some engine technology as part of the offsets.

At the seminar cum workshop – ‘ National Workshop on Gas Turbine Engines - organised by the recently formed Society for Advancement of Aircraft Propulsions (SAAP), India’s most touted, and certainly one of its most delayed programmes (over 30 years) Rs 2,500 crore, Kaveri engine programme was the biggest talking point. To many pundits the Kaveri programme was a classic lesson in how not to do something! Originally planned to power the indigenous light combat fighter Tejas, the Kaveri did not meet the requirement and the developers of the Tejas opted for the US multinational GE manufactured F404, F404-IN20 and F414-INS6 engines.

Speaking at the workshop Dr Kota Harinarayana, the former Programme Director, Aeronautical Development Agency said that the government should evolve a ‘National Program’ to develop an aero engine on the lines of the space, missile and LCA (light combat aircraft) programmes.

“We are underestimating the importance of the aero engine requirement. We in India are only used to license production. We made the mistake of getting a competitor of the Kaveri as a consultant. Of course they were happy to be consultants. But when we asked them to be partners they were very reluctant. Also, competition among ourselves is ruining us,” Dr Kota said.

He was also of the view that even if technology was given to India, the aeronautical community needed to develop the basic infrastructure, then only the nation will be able to absorb the technology. “Today we do not even have a test bed facility to test whether the module is okay or not,” he added.  

Senior scientists, both serving and retired, from some of India’s premier military and civil aeronautical development agencies highlighted what needs to be done by the government, and the private and public sectors if India is to give a thrust and have a roadmap to designing, developing and manufacturing aero engines for existing and future aircraft. India’s failure to develop an indigenous engine that can satisfy both the power and weight requirements of even existing aircraft has meant that foreign vendors have had a field day selling and maintaining a stranglehold over the country. Being arguably the most complex part of an aircraft, there are presently only five countries across the globe that have successfully designed aero gas turbine engines. These five powerful aero engine houses keep India’s aircraft flying but do not easily share technologies. So the question, will India gain in terms of crucial engine technology if some hand-holding by a foreign major is explored is complex and cannot be easily answered.

The broad sweep of opinion at the seminar for India’s failure to join these five countries in developing its own engine was fourfold: lack of a) state of the art design knowledge, b) special processes required for manufacturing, c) critical high temperature and light weight materials, and d) infrastructure for developmental testing.   

According to Dr K. Tamilmani, former Director-General (Aero R&D) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the time has come to end this dependency on foreign original equipment manufacturers and India should develop its own propulsion systems. In his presentation he pointed out that India’s future requirement for engines in the coming years, if all aircraft programmes were taken into account, would be in the several thousands, with costs estimated at Rs 3.52 lakh crore. His reasoning is that industry requirement should be the prime driver of any engine program.

“The country should form a national body to focus on aero engine development. It could be similar to dedicated agencies that were created for realising the space programme, the LCA fighter and missiles,” he said.

The test facilities (India hardly has 46 engine test bed / test rigs facilities) and the manpower deployed in the development of gas turbine engines was grossly inadequate, he said. Drawing a comparison with China, Dr Tamilmani said that while China had, over 10,000 aeronautical researchers; 26,000 students studying aeronautical engineering at the undergraduate level, 5,000 at the masters level and 1,250 pursuing doctorates; 42 aeronautical institutions; 89 aero labs; and a strength in excess of 400,000 in the aviation industry (AVIC), India hardly had 2,000 researchers mainly in the IITs, IISc and a few technical institutions and a total strength of around 40,000 in the KVIC. China’s budget vis-à-vis the aeronautical sector, he further disclosed was a substantial $16 billion (with forecasts indicating that it would be pushed to $40 billion over the next two decades), while that of India was $0.55 billion.  

Speaking further, he highlighted that the technological challenges before India are huge if it is to develop an indigenous gas turbine aero engine. Technology intensive areas like single crystal turbine blades, blisk and bling, blisk milling, high temperature material, laser beam welding, module testing, electronic fuel injection, propeller, rotary fuel atomiser…. are to be surmounted either with partnerships and pooling of resources among Indian entities or entering into partnerships with global players.

Dr Tamilmani averred that Joint Ventures and foreign collaborations should be pursued, testing facilities ramped up, LRUs (line replacement units) indigenised and the Kaveri experience built upon.

While most of Dr Tamilmani’s thoughts found favour with speakers and scientists present at the seminar, not all agreed with his line that the Kaveri experience should be built upon. A few felt that that with the Kaveri failing to meet the lone customer’s (IAF) ASQR it would be better to “dump it” and look at something entirely different.

While officials from the DRDO and Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the DRDO laboratory that was tasked with developing the Kaveri say that the Kaveri program is still on the anvil, the open secret is that the Narendra Modi government has more or less stopped the funding. The Government’s thinking is that when the customer (IAF) itself is not overly interested in it why should it be pursued with. For the record the floundering Kaveri engine according to officials from GTRE, after years and years of testing was able to produce thrust of 18,000 lbf (82 kN), grossly short of what the IAF want between 20,000 to 21,000 lbf (90–95 kN).

T Venkat Krishniah, former Additional Director at GTRE, said; “The Kaveri has almost produced the thrust that the original (1989) ASQRs had specified, 80kN. But now because of the increased drag in the LCA the thrust needed is 90 kN plus and the weight of the existing Kaveri also needs to be reduced by over 200 kgs. Without losing face the GTRE can go in for a new engine. The existing Kaveri can find application in the UCAV(unmanned combat vehicle) since there is enough thrust for it and weight will also be drastically reduced since the they does not need an after burner.”

SAAP founder-president T. Mohana Rao, a former director at GTRE emphasised that the hand-holding by a foreign major should be explored as engine technology especially core engine technology, is complex and not easily shared by the five global aero engine players. He added that India needed to upgrade its technology in areas like blade and disc, powered metallurgy, high temperature / thermal barrier coating, chemical milling, etc, to global competency levels.

Disclosing that the Kaveri engine had been test-flown for 70 hours in a converted Russian IL-76 plane in November 2010, Rao said that the engine was “technically almost realised, except for its slightly lower thrust and higher weight.”

Pic - Karthik, Copyright - IDI