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The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is actively engaged in discussions with three foreign companies for the development of a new 110kN thrust engine. This engine will be crucial for powering India’s upcoming 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter jets.

The Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a DRDO laboratory, is leading the project. They are expected to finalize talks and select one foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) partner soon. This partnership will mark a significant step towards developing the 110kN engine, designed entirely from scratch without relying on existing engine designs.

However, GTRE’s ambitions extend beyond the AMCA. They plan to leverage this engine’s core technology to develop a high bypass ratio turbofan engine variant. This variant, generating a higher thrust of 130kN-150kN, could have several potential applications.

Potential Applications:

  • Military Transport Aircraft: This high-thrust engine could power a domestically developed large military transport aircraft, potentially replacing the IAF’s ageing IL-76 fleet. A four-engine configuration would be sufficient to meet the required performance parameters.
  • Commercial Passenger Jet: This engine variant holds significant potential for India’s domestic commercial aviation aspirations. It could power an Airbus A321-class passenger jet, aligning with India’s RTA-90 project for a domestically built aircraft.
  • Cargo Transporters: The engine’s versatility extends to powering locally developed Cargo Commerical transporters based on the narrow-body commercial passenger aircraft in a twin-engine configuration.
  • AWACS and Aerial Refueling Platforms: Developing a domestic transporter will pave the way for advanced platforms like AWACS and mid-air refuelers, based on the same airframe and engine technology.

The IAF alone is estimated to require 20 new transport aircraft to replace its ageing IL-76 fleet. Additionally, 10 more aircraft could be needed to replace IL-76-based AWACS and mid-air refuelling platforms post-2040.

Developing a high-thrust engine domestically will have a significant ripple effect, spurring the growth of India’s aerospace industry and generating valuable technological expertise. The success of this engine program will position India as a major player in the global aerospace market.

Challenges and Opportunities:

While the potential rewards are significant, overcoming challenges is crucial for success:

  • Technical Expertise: Ensuring access to the necessary technical expertise through collaboration or domestic talent acquisition.
  • Timeframe: Balancing rapid development with thorough testing and certification procedures.
  • Funding: Securing adequate resources to sustain the program’s long-term development.
  • Platforms: The development of a high bypass ratio turbofan engine variant will mean it will require a platform for which it needs to be used. Either a Transport Aircraft Program or a Commercial Passenger Jet program needs to happen for that to take place. 

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