India, it s time to build capabilities of absorbing new technology on aero-engines and submarines


INDIA-FRANCE military relations are at a defining cusp. From New Delhi’s perspective, it sees itself as a natural partner — if not a compulsion — of the West as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific. From a French viewpoint, the European country aims to be a long-term technology partner — for years, it has been India’s second biggest military equipment supplier behind Russia For India, it’s time to build capabilities of absorbing new technology on aero-engines and submarines.

Never before has France agreed to transfer cutting-edge technology. The offer has come within weeks of an Indo-US agreement on cutting-edge jet engine technology from General Electric. The Germans, in June, inked an MoU with Mazagon Dockyard Limited (MDL) to collectively bid on the next generation stealth submarines.

The Narendra Modi-Emmanuel Macron bilateral meeting in Paris on July 14 promised to redefine technology ties. In all, five notable projects have emerged from the meet. The fineprint on co-development agreements will be a test of diplomacy, setting benchmarks for India-France strategic ties. On ground, it will gauge the abilities of the Indian private and public sectors to be partners on such new technologies.

Prime Minister Modi, in his opening statement ahead of the bilateral, laid down a path: “We are looking at new technology for co-development and co-production. Be it submarines or naval jets, we want to make for our two countries and also for our friends.”

Sounds like adoption of a BrahMos-style joint venture (JV) between India and Russia. However, it would be naïve to compare the India-France partnership with the Cold-War (1945-1991) era strategic ties.

Tech transfer for existing engines

A contract has concluded between Safran and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the transfer of technology of ‘forging and castings’ for the Shakti Engine — it powers all variants of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) post 2009. The engine is being made under a joint venture; the 500th engine was delivered in February this year, but HAL is yet to lay its hands on core technologies.

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), a former helicopter pilot, explains: “Aero-engine design demands finesse in forging and casting, catering to extreme tolerance while operating at high temperatures. Metallurgical science comes in here.”

For now, the HAL’s responsibilities in the JV are peripheral. These include rotor dynamic analysis, casing design, static parts’ stress analysis, height monitoring unit design and electrical harness system. Additionally, it has developed and manufactured oil cooling system, oil pump, filter unit assembly pipelines and brackets.

AVM Bahadur, a former Additional Director General of the IAF-backed think tank Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), adds that HAL has been making engines for Chetak/Cheetah copters and ALH helicopters under licence from Turbomeca and later Safran. “That we have not been able to make an engine ourselves in the past five decades of this tie-up shows a lack of design and metallurgical abilities.

An aero-engine demands varying speed and operations at altitude while being maintenance-free for longer periods, says AVM Bahadur.

Submarines to shore up undersea power

Mazagon Dockyard Ltd (MDL) and Naval Group of France signed an MoU for construction of three additional Scorpene-class submarines, with greater indigenous content. Named ‘Kalvari class’ in India, six such vessels have already been made, and the last one is set to be commissioned early next year.

Pierre Eric Pommellet, the CEO of Naval Group, was quoted in the media promising 60 per cent indigenous content, including high-level technologies like combat systems and air independent propulsion (AIP).

The first six Scorpenes have between 30 and 40 per cent local content.

Making three more subs is a stop-gap measure to shore up undersea abilities. As of now, India has 16 conventional and one nuclear submarine, much less than the envisaged plan drawn out in 1999 that spoke about having 24 conventional submarines by 2030. Barring the five Kalvari class submarines, rest of the 11 submarines are over 30 years old, running on an extended life cycle.

Commodore Anil Jai Singh (retd) says, “Additional Scorpenes will meet the immediate concerns of the Navy regarding its ageing submarine fleet.”

The additional subs will also come at a higher cost than the previous contract and greater indigenisation will add to costs, Commodore Singh, who has been a submariner, avers.

And it is not that construction of three subs will start off immediately. It will take some time for the commercial contract to conclude and it could be a few years before the first one sails out.

Rafale jets’ marine version

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), the apex decision-making body of the Ministry of Defence, on July 13 cleared the necessity of 26 Rafale Marine aircraft along with associated ancillary equipment, weapons, simulator, spares, documentation, crew training and logistic support for the Indian Navy.

The price and other terms will be negotiated with the French Government. The estimated delivery of the first jet is a good five-six years away from now.

The Indian Navy at present uses Russian-origin MiG-29K jets, inducted in phases from late 2009 onwards. India has two operational carriers and is looking at a third. Each carrier needs 20 or more jets on board. The average life of a jet is about 25 years; the phase-out of the MiG-29K will start by 2035. The Rafale M and the under-development indigenous Twin-Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) will form the frontline of air power at sea.

Former Deputy Chief of the Navy Vice Admiral Ravneet Singh (retd) says, “Serviceability issues and lack of spares (Russia-Ukraine conflict) mean the number of MiG-29K aircraft available for operational deployment is restricted, which impinges on the combat potential.”

Vice Admiral Singh cites the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which in 2016 said: “MiG-29K is riddled with problems relating to airframe, RD MK-33 engine and fly-by-wire system… deficiencies in the maritime fighter have compromised its battle-readiness.”

“The TEDBF induction timelines are likely to match the phase-out of MiG-29K,” the Admiral adds. The TEDBF will draw on existing programmes of the Light Combat Aircraft Mark 2 and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Engine for bigger copter

India is looking to make a 13-tonne Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH). It’s expected to replace the Russian Mi-17 copters in the Indian Air Force fleet.

The copter needs a new powerful engine. HAL and Safran have concluded a ‘shareholders’ agreement’ for development of the new engine.

AVM Bahadur says, “HAL will gain only if Safran shares all information and processes; only then it’s a true strategic partnership.” The fineprint of the IMRH engine contract — when it’s signed — will reveal what HAL is getting, he adds.

An official who did not wish to be named said HAL will participate in the design, development and production of the core engine components. The IMRH is expected to be launched in 2027.

HAL has carried out a preliminary design review and is looking at a new business model of public-private partnership.

Roadmap for jet engines

Jet engines are considered the epitome of aviation technology. Safran and DRDO are drawing up a roadmap for the project, which is expected to be ready before the end of this year. The engine, a 110 kilo newton power plant, is expected to roll out some 10 years down the line.

The Safran offer is for an engine to power the 6th generation AMCA Mark 2. This will be a new engine with a supply chain and manufacturing at an Indian location and will include a gas turbine technology centre. The US-origin General Electric F414 engine is for immediate needs. GE and HAL last month announced an MoU to produce engines for fighter jets. The announcement had come during Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Long association

  • India, a natural democratic ally of the West, can reap the benefits by absorbing the technology on offer.
  • Levels of co-development and co-production will set new benchmarks.
  • Historically, it was in 1953 that France first supplied an aircraft, the Ouragan.
  • The Naval plane ‘Alize’ followed in 1961.
  • Mirage 2000 jets in 1980s and Rafale in 2019 continued the sequence.
  • Scorpene submarines followed.
  • MBDA missiles are used on multiple IAF platform

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