On Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's first official visit to the United States from December 7-10, Washington has signalled its willingness to co-develop with India an aircraft engine for India's indigenous fifth-generation fighter that is called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
India's Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) believes it essential to work with US company General Electric Aviation (GE) in up-rating its F-414S6 engine into the so-called F-414 Enhanced Engine, which would power the futuristic AMCA.
As Business Standard reported earlier (June 1, "Carter to face Indian demand for engine technology"), GE has been eager to partner DRDO in this lucrative project. But the US government had earlier stood in the way, reluctant to transfer to India strategic technologies, such as the high-melting-point alloys needed to build the gas turbine.
During Parrikar's visit, Washington signalled that it has changed its mind. "Secretary (of Defense Ashton) Carter informed Minister Parrikar that in light of the strengthening relationship between the United States and India, the (US Department of Defense) has updated its policy on gas turbine engine technology transfer to India. As a result of this policy update, the Secretary is confident that the United States will be able to expand cooperation in production and design of jet engine components," says the joint statement issued on Friday by the Indian Embassy in Washington. That opens the doors for GE and DRDO to work together in uprating the F-414S6 engine, which India has already selected for the indigenous Tejas Mark II. This will enhance the current engine's peak power of 90 KiloNewtons (KN), delivering 110 KN of thrust. The AMCA's twin F-414 Enhanced Engine will thus deliver an awesome 220 KM of peak power. The green signal for co-developing this engine appears to have been given, with the joint statement saying: "Secretary Carter and Minister Parrikar look forward to US companies working with their Indian counterparts to submit transfer requests that will benefit from this updated policy."
For GE, this could be a commercial windfall, providing it an assured market for all India's indigenous fighters. This would include 100 F-404 engines for the Tejas Mark I, another 100 F-414 engines for the Tejas Mark II; and 400 F-414 Enhanced Engines for a planned 200 AMCAs.
Since an aero engine's life is about 1,500 hours, each fighter - with a service life of 5,000-6,000 hours - consumes 3.5 engines. That means GE could be supplying 700 engines for the Tejas Marks I and II, and 1,400 engines for the AMCA over their service lives. This is a sizeable share of the Indian aero engine market, which the DRDO estimates to be worth Rs 3,50,000 crore over coming decades.
Given this massive requirement, India put jet engine technology, along with aircraft carrier design, at the core of its high-technology expectations from Washington.
The joint statement issued on January 22, after President Barack Obama met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi, agreed to "form a working group to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design, and explore possible cooperation on development of jet engine technology."
During his visit, Parrikar's counterpart Carter accompanied him on a visit to aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower. Parrikar is the first Indian defence minister to visit an American carrier.
With India's first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, likely to be commissioned in 2018, the navy is focused on designing a second, larger, indigenous carrier that could include advanced American knowhow and technologies.
Business Standard understands the navy is opting for indigenous nuclear reactors to power the second carrier. However, the admirals are keen to incorporate an American-designed catapult launch system. A catapult allows a carrier to launch larger aircraft, more quickly, than the ski-jump that equips contemporary Indian carriers. This would allow Indian aircraft carrier battle groups to launch not just heavier fighters, but airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, fitting with radars, that monitor and control the aerial battle space.
"Minister Parrikar and Secretary Carter commended positive discussions at the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC), especially in the area of Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE), and look forward to continued progress to be achieved at the second meeting of the JWGACTC in February 2016 in India," said the joint statement.
Carter, during his visit to the Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam earlier this year, became the first US defense secretary to visit an operational military command in India. With that gesture reciprocated by Carter, Parrikar became the first Indian defense minister to visit the US Pacific Command in Hawaii en route to Washington.
According to the Pentagon website, Parrikar and Carter "also discussed the importance of India's participation in US military exercises such as Malabar, Rim of the Pacific, and for the first time in eight years for India, participation in Red Flag, which Carter called 'the premier air-to-air combat exercise'."