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Although the signing of a memorandum of understanding by GE and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd to jointly develop GE’s F414 engine for HAL’s TEJAS MK-2 fighter jets is to be applauded, a full transfer of technology is not yet guaranteed. According to a GE press release on the matter, “The agreement includes the potential joint production of GE Aerospace’s F414 engines in India, and GE Aerospace continues to work with the US government to obtain the necessary export authorization for this.”

Two things are noteworthy. One is the fact that joint manufacture of the engine in India is currently simply a potential arrangement and not a firm commitment. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US last week, the US government has not yet approved the transfer of the technology to India. This suggests that there is opposition to such technology sharing. As it stands, the deal aims to increase the scope of the technology transfer from 58% in 2012 to 80%. It would not be possible to transfer technology or manufacture some essential elements in India.

There may be a rationale for India to attempt to create its own fighter jet and civil aircraft engines. Both a lot of engineering work and a lot of money would be required. India possesses the necessary engineering expertise. The money should come from the government. In addition to GE, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and CFM-Safran, the world might use a fifth major engine supplier. HAL and BHEL may partner on this project.

For fighter aircraft, the GE-F414 engine has a long and successful history. The Pratt & Whitney F135 engine powers the F35, the most modern fighter jet in the US Air Force’s arsenal. The F136 engine, which GE and Rolls Royce were developing for the F35, was never finished because the US government did not provide funding for its final version. The GE-F414 is a fantastic engine, but there are better ones being developed. If India is to achieve strategic autonomy, it must have its own fighter aircraft engines, whose parts are designed and manufactured domestically using technology that is not under the control of anyone else.

India would likely need to discontinue all cooperation with Russian arms producers in order for America to fully transfer defence technology to that country. Either that, or the Americans must have faith in Indians to keep their technology out of Russian hands. Is India ready to stop making Brahmos, the cruise missiles it makes alongside the Russians, for instance? Hardly. Will the Americans have confidence in a military industrial complex where Russians play a significant role in the accuracy of its information? Most likely not.

The capacity to build jet engines locally is highly desirable. If we begin today, we will probably have a dependable engine for commercial aircraft in ten years. The project may eventually produce fighter-jet engines as well.

How could BHEL, a company that makes power-generation tools, be a potential jet engine developer? Jet engines and industrial gas turbines are related. They deal with varying degrees of heat and oxygen supply, differing in weight and compression ratios. After all, GE manufactures both varieties of turbines.

The BHEL division in Hyderabad manufactures gas turbines and has worked with GE in the past. The Koraput division of HAL was established to produce and maintain the engines for the Soviet-supplied fighter aircraft. Combining these two businesses and allowing them to create a new type of fighter aircraft engines, with or without GE, is one alternative. Another is to provide both units with the necessary cash and let them work separately on building aeroplane engines.

India has reached a distinct stage of development and has joined the group of countries with lower-middle incomes. India, which has a GDP of more than $3.5 trillion, has the financial resources to pursue specific objectives. Talent, though, is still very inexpensive. IIT graduates can command very high wages, and many of the brightest leave the country soon after receiving their degrees, but there is still a significant talent pool outside the IITs that can be utilised. The cost of the materials required for research and development is roughly the same all over the world, but the cost of the engineering skill varies greatly. India stands to gain substantially from this. R&D eventually requires a lot of brainpower.

But ultimately, everything depends on whether there is the political will to start such a project. It might not be worthwhile to keep inventing the wheel. Redesigning jet engines, however, might result in improved models that stand out for having no restrictions.

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