NEW DELHI: The aerospace unit of General Electric has announced it had signed an agreement with India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics to jointly make engines in India to power fighter jets for the Indian Air Force.
The announcement was timed to coincide with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark visit to the United States this week.
The deal, called “historic” and “trailblazing” by officials, is considered the most significant of a number of agreements expected to be concluded between the two countries or their companies during Modi’s visit, which ends on Friday.
The GE engine in question is called the F414 and it has been used by US Navy aircraft for more than 30 years.
The F414 powers or is on order to power jets in the US, Sweden, Australia, Kuwait, Brazil, South Korea, India and Indonesia.
GE says it has delivered more than 1,600 F414 engines and they have clocked more than 5 million flight hours.
It is also manufactured in South Korea.
India’s quest to manufacture an engine for an indigenous light combat aircraft called “Tejas” began in the 1980s but has struggled.
Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) turned to GE’s F404 engine the predecessor of F414 to power Tejas in the mid-2000s.
So far, 75 F404 engines have been delivered and another 99 worth $716 million are on order for Tejas Mark 1.
Tejas Mark 2, still under development, is a more powerful jet and needs a bigger engine. HAL has procured eight F414 engines for this programme.
The F414 will also be used to develop India’s next generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.
India’s Air Force is desperate to shore up its fighter squadrons, which have fallen to 31 from a target of 42.
New Delhi hopes it can meet its target with home-made jets powered by home-made engines to keep costs under control and also to avoid becoming dependent on a foreign supplier.
India and the United States, once on opposite sides of the Cold War, have grown closer over the last two decades and are building a strong bond centred on trade, defence and technology partnerships as well as geopolitical alignment.
Washington designated India as a “major defence partner” in 2016 and New Delhi’s military purchases from the United States passed $20 billion in 2020 from near-zero in 2008.
India has traditionally been dependent on its old friend Russia for arms supplies but has over the decades also sourced from France, Israel and the US, among others.
Washington has sought to deepen ties with New Delhi also as a counter to China’s rising global influence. It also wants to wean India away from Russian military supplies and is willing to give India access to critical American technologies such as F414 it rarely shares with non-allies.
The GE-HAL deal to co-produce F414 engines in India requires US government and legislative approvals.
It is not known yet how much of the technology behind the F414 that GE will share with HAL, and if that includes sensitive technology that deals with managing very high engine temperatures.
The first F414 engines are expected to be delivered from the US over the next three years while HAL sets up a production facility for it in India.
The first Tejas Mark 2 is expected to fly in 2026.
Full scale production of F414 in India and Tejas Mark 2 is expected only early in the next decade.