Matching the hype and expectations in the run up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, a joint statement from U.S. and India on June 22 announced that U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the landmark signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the manufacture of GE F-414 jet engines in India, for the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk 2.
This heralds a major high-technology cooperation between the oldest and largest democracies, which the U.S. has shared with very few of its closest allies. While the most critical technology of the engine will be off limits, details on what all technologies and industrial processes will be transferred to India is still awaited. “This trailblazing initiative to manufacture F-414 engines in India will enable greater transfer of U.S. jet engine technology than ever before. The leaders committed their governments to working collaboratively and expeditiously to support the advancement of this unprecedented co-production and technology transfer proposal,” the statement said.
The U.S. has significant export controls and stringent licensing system for sharing sensitive and niche technologies. So, the deal is not fully done till the U.S. Congress approves it, though with the bipartisan support for India at the Congress officials on both sides have expressed confidence that it would get through.
Jet engine technology is a proprietary of very few countries and is a closely guarded secret due to its extreme criticality in modern warfare. India made unsuccessful attempts in the past to develop an engine locally under the now shelved ‘Kaveri’ project. The Kaveri project was sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 1989 and over the course of 30 years before it was shut down entailed an expenditure of ₹2035.56 crore which saw the development of nine full prototype engines and four core engines.
While details on what specific technologies would be transferred to India are awaited, the deal is expected to give India access to several technologies and processes involved in the manufacture of jet engines. Indian industry both public and private, will get a chance to upgrade their capacities and skills as significant sourcing as well as manufacturing is expected to be done in the country. From a geopolitical lens, it does show the strategic bet that the U.S. is placing on India to deepen its relationship.
Here in is an opportunity for India to master several related technologies with respect to jet engines and utilise that, in the medium term, to develop an engine entirely locally as certain technologies like the crystal blade technology will not be shared by anyone, no matter the price.
Earlier on Wednesday evening, Mr. Modi met H. Lawrence Culp, Jr., CEO of General Electric. “PM appreciated GE for its long-term commitment of manufacturing in India. PM and Mr. Culp, Jr. discussed GE’s greater technology collaboration to promote manufacturing in India,” the Press Information Bureau said in a statement adding, “PM invited GE to play greater role in aviation and renewable energy sector in India.”
What is the engine meant for?
The F-414 engines are meant to power the indigenous LCA Mk-2, a larger and more capable variant of the LCA currently in service, and also the initial version of the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) that is under development. The F-414 is from the family of the F-404 engine that powers the current LCA Mk-1 as well as the LCA-Mk-1A that the Indian Air Force (IAF) will start receiving early-2024 onwards. The F-414 produces 98kN thrust compared to 84kN thrust of the GE-404 engine powering the LCA Mk-1 and MK1A. The LCA Mk-2 will be 1350mm longer featuring canards and can carry a payload of 6500kgs compared to 3500kgs by the Mk1.
End August 2022, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved the development of the LCA Mk-2 at a total development cost of ₹9000 crore of which ₹2500 crore has already been spent. The roll out of the LCA Mk-2 is targeted by 2024 and plan to complete the flight testing by 2027,” officials from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had stated earlier. CCS sanction for the indigenous fifth generation fighter the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is expected very soon.
The F-414 also powers the F-18 Super Hornet and Swedish Gripen among others. According to a GE data sheet, the F-414 sharing its “basic design with the venerable F404 engine, the F-414 stands on a foundation of over 5,600 F-404/F-414 engines built, and a combined 18 million engine flight hours.” More than 1,600 F-414 engines have been delivered accumulating over five million engine flight hours, it stated.
This deal also makes GE the frontrunner for another Indian proposal to jointly produce a jet engine for AMCA-MK2 for which Safran of France and Rolls Royce of the UK are competing and have submitted detailed technology transfer proposals.
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In this regard, the GE statement noted that it puts the company in a strong position to create a family of products in India, including the F-404 engine, which currently powers the LCA Mk-1 and LCA Mk-1A aircraft, and GE Aerospace’s selection for the prototype development, testing and certification of the AMCA program with the F-414-INS6 engine. “In addition, GE will continue to collaborate with the Indian government on the AMCA Mk-2 engine programme,” it said.
How will the engine be utilised?
According to GE, a total of 75 F-404 engines have been delivered and another 99 are on order for the LCA Mk-1A, while eight F-414 engines have been delivered as part of an ongoing development program for the LCA Mk-2.
The F-414 engine has been long chosen to power the LCA Mk-2, which has been designed around the engine, making it a larger and heavier jet and also more capable. The discussion for local manufacture and technology transfer came up much later. The IAF has ordered 40 LCA Mk-1, most of which have been inducted, and 83 LCA Mk-1A, on order under a ₹48,000 crore deal with HAL. As per schedule, HAL is expected to deliver first three Mk-1A aircraft in 2024 and 16 aircraft per year for subsequent five years completing the deal by 2028-29.
The LCA Mk-2 is a major fillip for the IAF to arrest the dwindling fighter squadron as several frontline fighters like Mirage-2000, Jaguars and Mig-29s that will begin phasing out by end of the decade. The IAF has given a commitment to procure at least six squadrons of the LCA Mk-2.
On the other side, development of the AMCA variety is planned to be carried out in two phases, Mk-1 with the GE-414 engine and a Mk-2 with a more powerful engine planned to be developed in collaboration. So, in total, the number of F-414 engines required over the next two decades will be well over 200.