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Air Force says DRDO stalling Tejas fighter engine

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India’s Tejas light fighter is failing to meet performance targets, largely because of an underpowered engine. And, the Indian (IAF) believes the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is actively stalling the process of choosing a new engine.

A furious IAF, which urgently needs the Tejas to replace its retiring MiG-21 squadrons, has complained in writing to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The IAF report says that even as the Aeronautical Development Agency, or ADA — which oversees the Tejas programme — is choosing between two powerful, modern engines from the global market, the DRDO has confused the issue by throwing up a third option: An offer to resurrect its failed Kaveri engine programme, this time in partnership with French engine-maker, Snecma.

The IAF report, currently with the highest levels of the MoD, makes two points. First, since the DRDO has been unable, for over two decades, to deliver a Kaveri engine that can power the Tejas, the ongoing procurement — of either the General Electric (GE) F-414, or the Eurojet EJ200 engine — should go ahead.

The IAF’s second objection is even more damning for the DRDO: Snecma, the IAF charges, has already developed the heart of the engine it is offering, an uprated derivative of the M88-2 engine that powers the French Rafale fighter. The DRDO, therefore, will not co-develop the engine, but merely provide Snecma with an indigenous stamp. In reality, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the DRDO laboratory that has laboured for decades on the Kaveri, will hardly participate in any “joint development”.

Further, says a top IAF source, a Kaveri engine based on Snecma’s new core will leave the Tejas short of performance, providing barely 83-85 Kilonewtons (KN) of maximum thrust. In contrast, the GE and Eurojet engines already short-listed for selection provide 90-96 KN, a significant advantage. The source says sneaking in the underpowered Kaveri-Snecma engine through the GTRE back door will damage the LCA project.

For the IAF, the performance of the new engine is crucial. It has agreed to accept the Tejas into service as soon as the fighter obtains its Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in December, even though the Tejas does not yet fly, climb, turn or accelerate fast enough. The IAF’s accommodation is based on a promise from the ADA that a new, more powerful engine will overcome all the Tejas’ current performance shortfalls.

Senior IAF officers explain that the DRDO needs the Tejas project to endorse the Kaveri-Snecma engine because Snecma insists on a minimum assured order of 300 engines as a precondition for partnering GTRE in “joint development”. Since India’s futuristic Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) — the other potential user of a Kaveri-Snecma engine — has not yet been sanctioned, only the Tejas programme, with some 120-140 fighters planned, provides the numbers needed for satisfying Snecma.

The IAF will buy two squadrons (42 fighters) of Tejas Mark 1, which use older GE F-404 engines. In addition, five squadrons (110 fighters) of Tejas Mark 2 are planned, which will be powered by a new engine. Given that each Tejas could go through 2-3 engines during its lifetime, the LCA Mk 2 will actually need 200-300 of the new engines.

Contacted by Business Standard, the DRDO declined to comment on the subject.

Business Standard has already reported (December 12, 2009, “Kaveri engine comes alive; will power Indian fighters”) that the MoD is backing Kaveri-Snecma as a new engine for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). That report was corroborated on May 13 by Defence Minister A K Antony, who told Parliament that the Kaveri “requires to be optimised for lower weight and higher performance so that it can be used for the Tejas and possibly for Indian next generation combat Aircraft.”

But there are mixed signals from the establishment. In the same statement, Antony also talked about the possibility of engine import. And the ADA chief, P S Subramaniam, has told Business Standard: “There are many Tejas already flying that will soon need new engines and we will use the Kaveri-Snecma engines for those. The Tejas Mark 2 will be powered by either GE F-414 or the EJ200.”

According to ADA sources, both the GE and Eurojet engines have fully met the technical requirements for the Tejas Mk 2. The Eurojet EJ200 is the more modern, lighter, flexible engine and has impressed the IAF. The GE F-414 is significantly heavier, but provides more power. The Indian tender for 99 engines (plus options) demands that all engines after the first 10 be built in India.

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