India is the third-largest aviation market in the world but is yet to assemble an indigenous line of jets. Can we still catch up?
Great nations project power through concentric circles of technological superiority. Each circle smaller than the one preceding it with increased exclusivity.
For instance, nations that have mastered space launch, advanced electronics, and nuclear technology sit around in a much smaller inner circle, while those that are merely consumers sit outside, on a larger one.
Airplanes have dramatically shrunk the planet, and with their advent, heralded their own circles of exclusivity. Today, every nation sits on the largest circle of aviation consumerism, ie plying an airplane.
The next circle, admitting only those that have the technological capacity to make them, contracts abruptly. Leaving aside the structure of the airplane itself, the air-breathing jet engine, at the heart of airplanes is a technological marvel.
Spawning an age named after itself, it represents a peak index of a nation’s scientific capabilities, technology organisational skills, economic might and long-term vision. It is no wonder that it continues to correlate with a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and strength of military-industrial-academia complex.
India may well be the first nation to enter the exclusive inner circle of top-five GDP nation without being anywhere close to making its own jet engine gas turbines. This is especially stark since; very soon, India will be the world’s third largest aviation market. Without urgent steps, it is likely that aviation will end up joining e-commerce, defence equipment and mobile communications where India’s primary claim to fame rests on its oversized market.
Inability to claw back will have devastating long-term consequences. India cannot reliably practise an independent foreign policy when it is critically dependent on foreign technology at the heart of its air force. Worse, without a handle on the engine, it will be incredibly difficult to scale up fighter aircraft indigenisation as the Kaveri engine fiasco has shown.
Jet engine designs, optimised to the peculiarities of India’s specific atmospheric conditions including particulate profile, temperatures and weather, will be difficult to deploy. A lack of jet engine development prowess will continue to haunt India as truly disruptive technologies such as hypersonic flight and weapons begin making their way into production.
Interestingly, although air breathing aircraft jet engines are in many ways related to other aviation and rocket engines such as ramjets and scramjets, they are still quite distinct. Mastery of the rocket engine may not guarantee mastery over the aviation jet engine. Jet engine’s longer life cycle, rotating parts, human payload, and maintenance make it significantly more challenging to design and engineer.
Modern jet engines are also voracious consumers of technology pertaining to advanced materials, computational simulations, diagnostics and sensors, fuel technology, thermal management systems, and advanced manufacturing.
Many high-end technologies and techniques used in other engineering sectors are often first tested in aviation. Few people outside engineering may know that the jet engine systems share remarkable similarities to power plant gas turbines and often lead them in technology adoption.
This confluence of technology, design and precision makes a jet engine design overwhelmingly complex. No wonder that nations and private firms that have any expertise tightly control its dissemination.
India will be delusional to wait for a future ‘tech-transfer’ to solve this problem. The interwoven intricacies and a pervasive ‘jugaad’ culture will ensure that making a jet engine will be a particularly difficult problem to solve.
Making matters worse, this sector requires intense capital expenditure, and hence, startup led disruptive leaps are nearly impossible at this stage. The daisy chain of numerous associated innovations in materials, thermodynamics and manufacturing now extend to nearly a century.
These challenges, however, present a unique opportunity if taken in the right spirit. Due to the indispensable role of government, large firms and high-tech innovation, this is an ideal testing ground for unprecedented military-market-academia collaborations.
Coming at the late stage does give India some advantages in absorbing the various state-of-the-art trends in this area pertaining to materials, systems and manufacturing.
India can also leverage its massive purchasing capacity to get some technological assistance in this area from the nations and firms selling their hardware.
However, these will not be sufficient if Indian industrial behemoths, national laboratories and universities are unable to step up to the task.
One of the easiest changes to make would be in the desultory engineering curricula. Jet engines are magnificent visual tools and engineering marvels to motivate young minds and should feature prominently in the curricula.
Although a very advanced field of study, propulsion technology benefits immensely from every other area of engineering. World over, mechanical and aerospace engineering departments tend to function under the same umbrella or are very closely tied in.
In India, where attracting bright students is always a challenge, this integration will be crucial and increase state capacity. Small, niche and territorial departments have failed to serve the purpose. It is already well known that students tend to avoid small stodgy departments fearing restrictions in job opportunities.
Worse, this also leads a large body of engineers studying other engineering and scientific streams to ignore jet engines as extraneous. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
On the side of industry, habitual ‘jugaad’ and mercantilism have to give way to grander vision of the future and genuine investment in research and intellectual property. Government policies will be critical in seeding this ecosystem.
Under the umbrella of academia-government complex, small but specialised startups nurturing tech requirements must be sheltered, which would feed into the overall supply and manufacturing chain.
Since this area naturally prefers large organised firms, a reflex allergic reaction of public and populist leaders towards big industrial houses will have to be managed.
These are immense challenges. Indian policy-makers and educationalists should have seriously acknowledged them a long time ago.
However, India has shown in the past that it has the capability to plug in critical technological gaps such as those pertaining to nuclear capabilities and satellite launch systems. Indian academia has steadily beefed up over the last decade and some Indian research groups now are competing with their counterparts in the developed world.
If the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is today.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the personal opinion of the authors.