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Carter to face Indian demand for engine technology

US defence secretary visits Vizag on Tuesday, meets Manohar Parrikar on Wednesday

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Ashton Carter
Ashton Carter

The US-India defence relationship needs an engine to drive it, say leaders on both sides. But there are different perceptions on what that engine might be.

Americans believe the engine should be the "Defence Trade and Technology Initiative" (DTTI), a high-level committee of officials from both sides that moots projects for working together, and removes bureaucratic roadblocks. In January, when President Barack Obama met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, they "emphasised the ongoing importance of the (DTTI) in developing new areas of technology cooperation", according to a joint statement issued at that time.

Indian officials are focused on another engine --- the General Electric Aviation (GE) F-414 jet engine that will power a more powerful version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the Tejas Mark II. The Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) wants GE to help it up-rate the F-414 engine to power India's futuristic Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is still on the drawing board.

So central is engine technology to India's high-technology expectations from the US, that it was specifically cited after the Obama-Modi talks. The joint statement said that, on January 22, the DTTI agreed to "form a working group to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design, and explore possible cooperation on development of jet engine technology."

Yet, the US technology control regime, which guards cutting-edge knowhow tightly, continues to treat jet engine technologies as sensitive and commercially valuable. Washington readily sold India the GE-404IN engine that powers the Tejas Mark I with 83 KiloNewtons (KN) of thrust. It also permitted the more advanced F-414 - which will provide the Tejas Mark II with 90 KN of thrust - to be built near Pune after GE won a contract for 99 engines in September 2010.

But India wants cutting-edge. Defence ministry sources say they want GE to partner the DRDO in upgrading the F-414 to deliver 110 KN of peak power to the AMCA, allowing its twin-engines to deliver 220 KN of peak power to the fighter.

GE is sees enormous commercial benefits in this co-development, which would capture the engine market for 200 Tejas and 200 AMCA. Since a fighter engine's life is about 1,500 hours and the aircraft itself lasts 5,000-6,000 hours, each fighter consumes 3.5 engines during its service life. GE is looking at supplying 700 engines for the Tejas and 1,400 for the AMCA over their service lives.

Yet, developing an advanced F-414 engine in India would require GE to part with valuable technologies, particularly in the high-melting-point alloys that make the combustion chamber. Engine designers say an output of 90 KN requires the combustion chamber to be built of materials that withstand temperatures of 1,800 degrees Kelvin. Achieving engine output of 110 KN would generate 2,000 degrees Kelvin in the combustion chamber. Washington remains reluctant to share these technologies, even after committing to jointly exploring cooperation.

"The DTTI should facilitate US permissions, especially with a working group in place for engine technology. But we are getting signals this may not happen," says a top DRDO scientist.

Indian officials see advantage in dealing with GE along, through government-to-government channels, a more flexible and faster mechanism. There is also benefit in having GE as a single partner for Tejas Mark I, Mark II and AMCA engines, which GE keenly wants too. Even so, Indian officials say that US government foot-dragging might leave no choice but an international tender that brings in European companies like Snecma and Eurojet.

At stake here is the Indian military and civil aero engine market, which internal DRDO estimations reckon to be worth Rs 3,50,000 crore over coming decades.

"How the Americans react on Wednesday will tell us how serious they are about technology partnership with India," says a top defence ministry bureaucrat.

"So far they have treated the DTTI as a channel to help American companies to bypass competitive procurement and multi-vendor tenders. But we will allow that only when there are clear technology benefits for India," he added.

Before his meetings in New Delhi on Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be stopping at Visakhapatnam on Tuesday, on his way in from Singapore, where he will visit the navy's Eastern Naval Command. With the second "joint working group" exploring US cooperation in building India's next aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, Carter will listen keenly to his briefings on India's operational doctrines.

Besides the two working groups, the DTTI has committed to US-India cooperation in developing and manufacturing four pieces of military equipment as "pathfinder projects". These include the Cheel micro-drone that infantry platoons can launch to view the battlefield; roll-on, roll-off kits for the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, which are changeable interiors that allow the C-130J to be quickly configured for different missions, e.g. para-dropping, cargo-carrying, medical evacuation, etc; a mobile electric hybrid power source for various utilisations; and protective clothing for soldiers operating in a nuclear, chemical or biologically contaminated battlefield.

Carter played a leading role in establishing the DTTI when then Defence Secretary Leon Panetta proposed it in June 2012. He co-chaired the DTTI along with former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. The DTTI is now cho-chaired by Frank Kendall, an Under Secretary of Defence; and India's defence secretary, G Mohan Kumar.

First Published: Mon, June 01 2015. 00:49 IST