Paris: Even as India's indigenous fighter programme, the Light Combat Aircraft, continues to make encouraging progress conducting its first night flight last week, DRDO's stalled Kaveri jet engine programme may receive an important boost with co-development and production plans with a foreign company likely to be unveiled soon.
Indications are that the DRDO may settle into a four year co-development and co-production arrangement with European aero-engine manufacturer Snecma. It is also considering an offer from Russian engine manufacturer, NPO Saturn. The deal with Snecma may finally result in commercial manufacture of the Kaveri engine and the LCA Tejas.
Reports quote a top Snecma officials as saying that the India's Defence and Research Development Organisation (DRDO) will announce the winner of the development contract "any time now." The official has expressed confidence that once the contract is awarded the engines would be ready in four years' time.
"We have submitted a short and secure four-year plan as the Kaveri engine development time-frame," said Xavier Sahut D'izarn, vice president, military engines, Snecma group.
DRDO laboratories have so far developed nine prototypes of the Kaveri engine but appear to have reached a dead-end after last high-altitude tests, conducted at Russian facilities, failed once again.
According to Sahut D'izarn, the Kaveri would be a nine-tonne capacity engine with a low thrust-to- weight ratio. "We will transfer full know-how and the engines would be developed and produced by HAL in India," D'izarn said.
"Its going to be a joint Indo-French engine with shared expertise with gradual transfer of full know-how," the Snecma vice president said. Importantly, the official said that while high pressure parts of the engine will be produced by his company, the low pressure part will be developed by Bangalore-based GTRE, a DRDO subsidiary.
The DRDO chief, M. Natarajan has earlier said that the Kaveri had achieved 95 per cent capability and it was the last 5 per cent that it had failed to negotiate. Critically, it was this last 5 per cent that constituted the 'slam effect' of any jet fighter engine.
Natarajan has attributed a number of reasons to this failure, which are mainly historical in nature. India has much to catch up on, not just in areas of engine technology but also in related areas such as metallurgy, which are critical for the development of any engine of such sophistication.
With DRDO's efforts to develop the LCA receiving a massive boost after defence minister AK Anthony's announcement that the Indian Air Force will eventually induct as many as 150 Tejas fighters into its squadrons, it is now understandable that the DRDO should give the Kaveri development programme a much needed shot in the arm.
The initial 40 Tejas LCAs are to powered by US General Electric 404 engine. The power provided by the GE 404 engines may not be enough to allow the Tejas to achieve its multi-role capability in full.
According to Snecma officials, the nine-tonne thrust capability and low thrust ratio of the new Kaveri engine would provide Tejas the capability to undertake air-to-air, air-to-ground as well as carrier-borne operations.
The DRDO floated international tenders in 2005 for co-development and received a response from four companies, Pratt and Whitney, GE, Snecma and NPO Saturn for its Request for Proposals (RFP). The RFP was modified and re-floated in 2006 to include co-production along with co-development.