In what was nominated in 1976 as the Fight of the Year, boxing legend, George Foreman, staggered to his feet after being twice knocked down by Ron Lyle, to flatten Lyle with a stunning knockout punch. If the Ministry of Defence has its way, India’s Kaveri engine, bitterly criticised as underpowered even after two decades of development, could recover to do a Foreman on its two world-class rivals.
Meant to power the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the Kaveri was heading for a quiet burial after completing flight tests that are underway in Russia. In its place, two alternatives were short-listed: the Eurojet EJ200, and the General Electric F-414 engines. A final choice was expected within weeks.
But, unexpectedly, the Kaveri has gotten off the floor. Business Standard has learned that the MoD --- apprehending that Eurojet and GE would hang back from providing India with critical engine technologies, even if Transfer of Technology (ToT) was mandated in a purchase contract --- now wants to co-develop an engine in India rather than manufacturing one under licence. The DRDO’s Gas Turbine and Research Establishment (GTRE), which has a design partnership with French engine-maker, Snecma, has been asked to design a more powerful Kaveri successor.
A Snecma-GTRE joint venture to develop the upgraded Kaveri is likely to be announced during President Nikolas Sarkozy’s visit to India in early 2010.
Minister of State for Defence, Dr Pallam Raju, has confirmed to Business Standard, “It is important for India to have indigenous capabilities in engine design. And having invested so many man-hours of work into the design of the Kaveri engine, it would be a national waste to fritter away or dilute those capabilities…. (Snecma) is willing to co-develop an engine with us; they are willing to go beyond just transfer of technology. It is a value-added offer that gives us better technology than what we would get from ToT from Eurojet or GE.”
Amongst the key engine technologies that India needs is that for Single Crystal Blades, which significantly enhance turbine performance within the incandescent confines of a jet engine combustion chamber. The MoD suspects that this technology, worth billions of dollars, will not be fully transferred by Eurojet or by GE.
An MoD official, who is closely involved in deciding between the EJ200 and the F-414, explains this apprehension: “The tender stipulates that 50% of the technology must be transferred to India. But the vendor will lump together a bunch of low-end technologies that might add up to 50%. What we want is one or two high-end technologies.”
GTRE designers say that it would take about 4 years to co-develop an engine with Snecma, somewhat longer than the 3-year time frame in which the EJ200 or F-414 would start being delivered. Based upon the performance of the Kaveri flight in the ongoing flight tests in Russia, GTRE sources are confident that, “Snecma-GTRE is fully capable of producing an engine as good as the F-414 and the EJ-200.”
That will involve improving from the current Kaveri’s maximum thrust of 65 Kilo Newtons (KN), to the 95 KN that the EJ200 and F-414 develop.
While Snecma remains tight-lipped, it is aware of the challenges in such a project. Business Standard has learned that Snecma had conducted a Technical Audit of the Kaveri programme in 1998, identifying design challenges that included developing materials that could withstand the combustion chamber temperatures of around 2000 degrees centigrade.
While the MoD is trusting Snecma to help GTRE in overcoming these challenges, it is also aware of the Kaveri’s unenviable record of time and cost overruns. The MoD is still considering whether to put all its eggs in the GTRE-Snecma basket or to go ahead on a parallel track, choosing either the EJ200, or the GE F-414, as insurance against further delays.