No headway with AMCA fighter jet engine; a quest for new engine propulsion technology lingers

For indigenous advanced fighter jet, India is making efforts to join hands with at least three foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). However, there are concerns over the engine development roadmap. The quest for the smart engine based on new propulsion technology remains. How is it unfolding?

Safran's M88 aeroengine for Rafale
Safran's M88 aero-engine for Rafale. credit Safran

The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft—AMCA– will put India in a select group of countries with super-cruise and stealth aircraft capabilities. For its most ambitious indigenous military project, India is making efforts to join hands with at least three foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—France’s Safran, US’s GE Aerospace and the British Rolls Royce—to co-develop fighter jet engines in India.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has prioritised the AMCA, according to a senior official who is part of the prime minister Narendra Modi-led Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).  

The first 40 jets of AMCA would fly on GE-414 engines. The next version of the aircraft, AMCA Mark 2, will fly on an engine co-developed in India.

India has plans to locally develop a new engine, with 110kN Class thrust, for the AMCA Mark 2, which is expected to go into production in 2035. This is to meet the requirement of super-cruise capability.

However, there are concerns over the engine development roadmap for Indian fighter jets. The AMCA has a budget of Rs 15,000 crore for the development of the prototype. While the fund is meagre it is still underutilized. The critical here is the staggering complexity that the AMCA demands and the engine remains at the heart of such ambitions.

The new engine technologies will involve engine-airframe integration, advanced materials and material-processing techniques. Advances in turbo-machine technology, progress in combustion technology and vastly improved utilisation of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) in engine design procedures have radically transformed the new age aeroengine. Novel technologies such as “smart engines” are on the horizon marking the fifth and the sixth generation of fighter aircraft.

Propulsion technology approach

The joint development for the aero engine must embrace the concept of smart engines based on next-generation clean sheet technology. A clean sheet engine takes advantage of recent advances in propulsion system technology to significantly improve performance and reduce emissions and noise footprints.

While it is about pushing the boundaries, it also creates opportunities for India and aero-engine manufacturers to design and develop on the advanced fundamentals for the AMCA and other variants.   

It touches the critical technologies and its full spectrum of aero-engine from R&D to traditional gas turbines, electric, hybrid-electric or hydrogen.

How is it unfolding with three OEMs?

Safran M88 engine

The M88-2 engine is the variant for the Rafale fighter jet which produces 50 kN of dry thrust & 75 kN with afterburners.

The M88 engine that powers Dassault Aviation’s multirole fighter is a new-generation turbofan engine offering a high thrust-to-weight ratio. Reliability remains its top feature as records show the engine has clocked up more than one million operating hours.

The M88-2 powerplant is rated at 10,971 lbs dry and 16,620 lbs with an afterburner. It comes equipped with “full authority digital engine control” which is all about easy manoeuvring.  

Safran was able to upgrade the high-pressure compressor and the high-pressure turbine of the M88-2 which boosted durability by up to 50 percent.

Safran is in talks with the Gas Turbine Research Establishment which is a laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Safran and GTRE are deliberating on the scaled-up version of this engine which could generate a thrust of 125 kN. This is the most viable option for AMCA-2 as per the aviation expert.

However, it depends on how soon India gets Safran on board with GTRE to have a plan for AMCA and its variants.

What is important here is that Safran is also working on engine development as a part of 6th generation fighter jet program called Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program aimed to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet for Europe.

This is marked as the most advanced joint program with France, Germany & Spain on the development of next-generation aero-engine along with Airbus. This will result in a much higher thrust – the benchmark target—as the reports suggest.

Safran Aircraft Engines is also currently working on the F4 Standard of the M88, which will power the Rafale fleet. This upgrade, slated to be rolled out in 2025, will provide even more onboard electronics for storing the growing volume of data required for integrated predictive maintenance.

In addition to 36 Rafale multi-role fighter jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF), Dassault Aviation’s Rafale-M has also emerged as the frontrunner to bag a mega contract from the Indian navy for 27 fighters.

“This makes a great sense to have a larger fleet of Rafale for a joint aero-engine programme for AMCA,” said a senior leader of the IAF.

In fact, experts believe the co-development must even target the AMCA-MK 1 version to have a greater efficiency and cost advantage with Safran as the existing program already favours scaling up.

GE Aerospace’s F4141-GE-400

The F414-GE-400 combines advanced technology with proven reliability.

Sharing its basic design with the base F404 engine, the F414 stands on a foundation of over 5,600 F404/F414 engines built, and a combined 18 million engine flight hours. It adds to the maintainability, and operability of its successful F404 predecessor while delivering 35 % more thrust.

It powers Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. The F414-GE-400 also powers Boeing’s EA-18 G Growler electronic attack aircraft. Advanced technology features such as Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) improve the operational characteristics of the engine. New materials and cooling techniques improve performance and extend component life. It is also a potential powerplant for emerging platforms such as the Korean KF-X and the AMC, as well as growth versions of the Saab/BAE Systems JAS39 Gripen, KAI/LMTAS T-50, and the LCA Tejas.

GE Aerospace F4141400 credit GE

The F414 Enhanced Durability Engine (EDE) incorporates additional advanced technology, which can be retrofitted into the F414-GE-400 to deliver enhanced component capability for a significant reduction in ownership costs, or up to 20 % increased thrust-improved specific fuel consumption.

Here the critical advantage of engine performance is the ability to improvise for rapid engine throttle response and zero throttle restrictions. So, the engine is defined for afterburner light and stability to ensure extra thrust on demand when needed.

However, GE Aerospace is heavily restricted by the US government and it certainly limits the scope of technology transfers. For India, the engine frame is a must for the AMCA to achieve the fifth-generation capability in real terms.

What is still lacking in F-414? The crucial thermal reduction technology in gas turbine engines is based on the concept of Thermal Management (TM) of utilising the engine fluid systems to extract the excess heat generated within the various components and systems of the engine. Further, the thermal reduction technology adds to the overall thrust engine performance with extracted heat for multiple functions that would improve the engine’s performance.

Rolls Royce EZ 200

The EJ200 was developed by an international European consortium (EUROJET Turbo GmbH) consisting of MTU, Rolls-Royce, Avio Aero and ITP Aero.  This boosts of 20,000-pound force thrust which powers the Eurofighter and its export version, the Typhoon.

Rolls-Royce has also indicated its interest in collaborating with India to co-develop and produce engines for India’s AMCA fifth-generation fighter aircraft project. Rolls Royce has offered a Eurojet EJ200 version with 110-120KN thrust.

Rolls-Royce also powers legacy aircraft of the IAF which include Jaguars, Hawks and the C-130Js. Besides, it has also received an order from Air India for its new 68 Trent XWB-97 engines.

However, there are two factors which delay the outcome.

EJ 200 Rolls Royce

Firstly, the technological barriers within the UK government make the program untenable with India. According to the official from the MoD, despite the intention, there is hardly any progress with Rolls Royce on the fighter jet engine programme.

Second, as reports suggest, the IAF is looking for the advanced version of EJ200; some experts are calling it “outdated” for next-generation platforms like the AMCA. Even the Eurofighter order is in decline.

“Time is the essence,” said a former Vice Chief of the IAF. The engine enigma must be resolved if India aims for breaking the technological barriers for the AMCA.  

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First published on: 01-04-2023 at 10:07 IST