India is looking for overseas help to develop its Kaveri engine on schedule to power the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).
Sixteen years after the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) began the Kaveri project at the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Bangalore, a special committee has been set up by the agency to find a suitable overseas technical partner to help with the engine’s development and co-production, a senior DRDO scientist said.
The Kaveri project has been so slow that it is now out of sync with the development of the LCA, which itself is more than a decade behind schedule, a Defence Ministry official said.
Even the Select Committee of the Indian Parliament on Defence, in its April report, “Standing Committee of Defence Fourteenth Lok Sabha,” that was presented to parliament, expressed serious concern over the inordinate delay in developing the Kaveri engine. The report noted that the Kaveri was given the go-ahead in April 1989 with a price tag of $87.8 million, with completion expected nearly eight years later.
The engine can “now get onto the LCA by 2012 at a revised cost of $852.6 million,” the committee said.
An internal DRDO committee has begun negotiations with several engine manufacturers, including Snecma in France; Rolls-Royce in the United Kingdom; General Electric, CFM International and Pratt & Whitney in the United States; and NPO Saturn and MMPP Salute in Russia, for help with the Kaveri program, the DRDO scientist said.
The Kaveri engine has undergone 1,300 hours of ground testing, including a high-altitude test in Russia, but is far behind the required 8,000 hours of flying before it is ready to power the LCA. As a consequence, the first 40 LCAs will be powered by General Electric’s GE 404 engine.
It was the procurement of those General Electric engines from the United States that temporarily derailed the LCA program. When the United States imposed sanctions on India in 1998 due to the latter’s nuclear testing, the engines stayed in America and General Electric withdrew its technical support personnel from India.
Those sanctions have since been lifted. The two LCA technical demonstrators and one prototype currently are powered by the GE 404 engine.
The Defence Ministry official admitted that if the Kaveri engine is not ready by 2007, it could be scrapped and India will have to buy engines elsewhere.
The official added that all the prospective foreign partners for development of the Kaveri have asked for details on the number of engines to be produced for the LCA. However, the number of LCAs to be ordered by the Indian Air Force is not yet clear, as the service has decided to buy a mix of aircraft and has ordered just 40 LCAs.
That the DRDO is asking for help now, nearly 16 years after the Kaveri engine project began, is another example of how the agency is letting down the Indian military, said Surya Pal Singh, a defense analyst and retired Indian Air Force air commander. He also pointed to the toll the delay in the LCA program has taken on the combat worthiness of the Indian Air Force.