Air Force says DRDO stalling Tejas fighter engine

India’s Tejas light fighter is failing to meet performance targets,largely because of an underpowered engine. And, the Indian Air Force(IAF) believes the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)is actively stalling the process of choosing a new engine.

A furious IAF, which urgently needs the Tejas to replace its retiringMiG-21 squadrons, has complained in writing to the Ministry of Defence(MoD). The IAF report says that even as the Aeronautical DevelopmentAgency, or ADA — which oversees the Tejas programme — is choosingbetween two powerful, modern engines from the global market, the DRDOhas confused the issue by throwing up a third option.

An offer toresurrect its failed Kaveri engine programme, this time in partnershipwith French engine-maker, Snecma.

The IAF report, currently with the highest levels of the MoD, makestwo points. First, since the DRDO has been unable, for over twodecades, to deliver a Kaveri engine that can power the Tejas, theongoing procurement — of either the General Electric (GE) F-414, or theEurojet EJ200 engine — should go ahead.

The IAF’s second objection is even more damning for the DRDO:Snecma, the IAF charges, has already developed the heart of the engineit is offering, an uprated derivative of the M88-2 engine that powersthe French Rafale fighter. The DRDO, therefore, will not co-develop theengine, but merely provide Snecma with an indigenous stamp. In reality,the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the DRDO laboratory thathas laboured for decades on the Kaveri, will hardly participate in any“joint development”.

Further, says a top IAF source, a Kaveri engine based on Snecma’snew core will leave the Tejas short of performance, providing barely83-85 Kilonewtons (KN) of maximum thrust. In contrast, the GE andEurojet engines already short-listed for selection provide 90-96 KN, asignificant advantage. The source says sneaking in the underpoweredKaveri-Snecma engine through the GTRE back door will damage the LCAproject.

For the IAF, the performance of the new engine is crucial. It hasagreed to accept the Tejas into service as soon as the fighter obtainsits Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in December, even though theTejas does not yet fly, climb, turn or accelerate fast enough. TheIAF’s accommodation is based on a promise from the ADA that a new, morepowerful engine will overcome all the Tejas’ current performanceshortfalls.

Senior IAF officers explain that the DRDO needs the Tejas project toendorse the Kaveri-Snecma engine because Snecma insists on a minimumassured order of 300 engines as a precondition for partnering GTRE in“joint development”. Since India’s futuristic Medium Combat Aircraft(MCA) — the other potential user of a Kaveri-Snecma engine — has notyet been sanctioned, only the Tejas programme, with some 120-140fighters planned, provides the numbers needed for satisfying Snecma.

The IAF will buy two squadrons (42 fighters) of Tejas Mark 1, whichuse older GE F-404 engines. In addition, five squadrons (110 fighters)of Tejas Mark 2 are planned, which will be powered by a new engine.Given that each Tejas could go through 2-3 engines during its lifetime,the LCA Mk 2 will actually need 200-300 of the new engines.

Contacted by Business Standard, the DRDO declined to comment on the subject.
Business Standard has already reported (December 12, 2009, “Kaveriengine comes alive; will power Indian fighters”) that the MoD isbacking Kaveri-Snecma as a new engine for the Light Combat Aircraft(LCA). That report was corroborated on May 13 by Defence Minister A KAntony, who told Parliament that the Kaveri “requires to be optimisedfor lower weight and higher performance so that it can be used for theTejas and possibly for Indian next generation combat Aircraft.”

But there are mixed signals from the establishment. In the samestatement, Antony also talked about the possibility of engine import.And the ADA chief, P S Subramaniam, has told Business Standard: “Thereare many Tejas already flying that will soon need new engines and wewill use the Kaveri-Snecma engines for those. The Tejas Mark 2 will bepowered by either GE F-414 or the EJ200.”
According to ADA sources, both the GE and Eurojet engines have fullymet the technical requirements for the Tejas Mk 2. The Eurojet EJ200 isthe more modern, lighter, flexible engine and has impressed the IAF.The GE F-414 is significantly heavier, but provides more power. TheIndian tender for 99 engines (plus options) demands that all enginesafter the first 10 be built in India.

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