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Spurring the Growth of Civil Aviation & Defence Aerospace in India

Updated: February 19, 2017 7:10 pm

India has never attempted to formulate a national vision for aerospace. Now is perhaps the time to do so. Propulsion, materials and avionics technologies are closely guarded secrets. The government needs to put in place a policy framework that seriously encourages public and private sector to step up R&D in these domains so that the country can break out of the import spiral. The policy framework should simultaneously incentivise the use of domestically produced aircraft and components.

From a development and engineering perspective, the civil aviation industry of a nation pivots around the following capabilities:

  • Precision engineering and manufacture
  • Electronics and software (computers, sensors, control algorithms, system management software) and,
  • Esoteric materials (high strength, light weight, high temperature)

Precision engineering and manufacture allow the thousands of components that make up an aircraft to be packaged in a light airframe with easy access for maintenance. Electronics and software facilitate easy and safe flight operation and maintenance. Special materials facilitate reduction in aircraft weight, increase in propulsive efficiency of aircraft engines, increase in service life of airframe components resulting in enhanced safety. Broadly speaking, a nation’s defence aerospace industry has the same pivots. The US, with the family of airliners from Boeing and France, with the Airbus family, are world leaders in the civil aviation industry. It is no coincidence then that they are also world leaders in defence aerospace. Both nations have manufactured remarkable civil and military aircraft and posses advanced defence aerospace capabilities. The Soviet Union, a world leader at one time, unraveled in December 1991, and its defence aerospace industry fragmented and languished in Russia, Ukraine and other erstwhile member states. Early in the current century, Russia started to revive its dormant and rather outdated industry with major investments in aviation-related technologies such as high bypass turbofans, advanced electronics and new materials. The investments are bearing fruit and Russia is posed to make significant strides in both civil aviation, with its MC-21 family of aircraft and in defence aerospace, with its T-50 fifth generation fighter.

The link between civil aviation and defence aerospace is stark also from a technological component perspective with the pivots being:

  • Propulsion
  • Avionics, sensors and computing horsepower
  • Software
  • Aero structures

In the subsequent paragraphs, we will study the links from the technological component perspective:


The most important component of an aircraft is its engine whose propulsive efficiency determines the operating costs of an airliner as well the range and payload capability of a military aircraft. Advances in propulsive technology reduce operating costs in airliners and increase the operating range and payload in military aircraft. The world’s leading civil aircraft engine manufacturers are Pratt & Whitney (P&W) and General Electric (GE) of the US, Safran (Snecma) of France, Rolls-Royce of Britain and UEC of Russia. Safran has co-developed airliner engines with GE and military engines on its own. Rolls-Royce has co-developed airliner engines with P&W and military engines on its own. All five companies listed above make civil (mostly airliners) and military engines. Power plants for civil and military aircraft differ in key aspects such as weight, fuel consumption and acceleration, but the underlying technology is similar.

Airliners typically use turbofan engines with very high bypass ratios and consequently, have low fuel consumption. The engines are relatively heavier (lower thrust to weight ratio) and have large frontal cross sections, which make them unsuitable for use on combat aircraft. Airliner turbofans do not transition very quickly from low to high thrust regimes and are not designed to sustain high ‘g’ forces. Airliner engines are often used to power large military airlifters such as the C-17 Globemaster III and the IL-76MD. The C-17 is powered by the F-117, the military version of PW-2000 which powers the Boeing 757 and Il-98M airliners. The IL-76MD is powered by the Aviadvigatel PS-90, which additionally powers airliners such as Ilyushin Il-96 and Tupolev Tu-204.

Fighter aircraft feature turbofan engines with low bypass ratios and smaller frontal cross sections. Consequently, fighter aircraft engines have higher fuel consumption, but are relatively much lighter (high thrust to weight ratio) and sustain very high g-loads. The thrust of the engines can be dramatically increased (once again at the cost of significantly higher fuel consumption) through the use of afterburning. As would be expected, many underlying technologies are shared between civil and military engines. For example, thrust-to-weight ratio is better if an engine’s turbine blades can withstand higher temperatures. Lighter compressor blades improve fuel consumption.

Pratt & Whitney

Pratt & Whitney makes aircraft engines for both civil and military aviation. Pratt & Whitney’s large commercial engines power more than 25 per cent of the world’s passenger aircraft fleet and serve more than 800 customers in 160 countries. Pratt & Whitney airliner engines include:

  • Pratt & Whitney PW1000G high-bypass engine family with a thrust range from 24,240 to 33,110 lbf (107.8–147.3 kN). Branded PurePower, the engine family features a Geared Turbo Fan (GTF) that allows the compressor and fan to rotate at differing speeds optimised for flight conditions. The engine family would be used on the Airbus A320neo, Irkut MC-21 and Sukhoi Superjet 130.
  • Pratt & Whitney PW2000 high-bypass turbofan aero engines with a thrust range from 37,000 to 43,000 lbf (165 to 190 kN). As mentioned earlier, the engine family powers the Boeing 757, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and the Ilyushin Il-96M.
  • The Pratt & Whitney PW4000 is a family of high bypass turbofan aircraft engines with thrust ranging from 52,000 to 99,040 lbf (230 to 441 kN). Airliners using the engines include Airbus A300, Airbus A310, Airbus A330, Boeing 747-400, Boeing 767 and the Boeing 777.
  • Pratt & Whitney PW6000, 18,000 to to 24,000-pound thrust engines target 100-passenger aircraft and are featured on the Airbus A330.

Pratt & Whitney military engines include the F135 for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, the F119 for the F-22 Raptor, the F100 family that powers the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon, and the F117 for the C-17 Globemaster III. To reiterate, the underlying propulsive technology for civil and military engines is the same.


Avionics, Sensors and Computing Horsepower

Avionics refers to the electronic systems used on aircraft for flight control (fly-by-wire), communications, navigation, systems management, weather and threat monitoring and automated responses to threats and unsafe flight conditions. Avionics include digital computers, radar, electro optical sensors and LCD displays. Avionics invariably involves digital data processing and their performance is largely dependent on the computing horsepower packaged within the host platform (main computer) as well as individual units. Avionics and sensors used in civil aviation differ significantly from those used in the defence aerospace industry but rely on the same industrial base spanning precision engineering, high quality manufacture, microprocessors, System on Chips (SoCs), displays and materials (high strength, high temperature resistance).

Size and weight are critical aspects of avionics, sensor and computer components because of limited space and payload in aircraft. Space and weight limitations are more severe in defence aerospace but the quest for compactness is equally determined even in civil aviation. The underlying physics for these components is well known. However, compactness of components is largely dependent on the sophistication of the industrial manufacturing base. The US is the world leader in avionics and sensors with France a somewhat distant second. Russia is known to produce competent avionics and sensors; but lags behind the West in materials, high-end engineering and manufacturing techniques. Russian avionics tends to be bulkier, heavier and more power consuming – a scarce resource on an airborne platform. Heavier avionics limits payloads.


Civil aviation and defence aerospace are becoming increasingly reliant on software. An aircraft, civil or military, comes with millions of lines of code embedded on silicon chips for flight control (fly-by-wire), a Full Authority Digital Engine (or Electronics) Control (FADEC), sensor display, sensor fusion, aircraft management, weapon system guidance and management, flight stability management, automated recovery from unsafe flight conditions, threat assessment and automated defensive response, target engagement and electronic warfare and so on. The list is long.

Software has to be written to exacting standards that facilitate code enhancement to keep up with system upgrades, environmental changes (new threats) and to support new (perhaps client mandated) systems. The code has to be thoroughly tested and debugged. Testing code involves trained manpower and evolved best practices. Coding is laborious and expensive. Software development costs are already beginning to rival hardware costs and may overtake hardware costs eventually. The standards and process (best practices) for writing and validating aviation related code are the same in civil aviation or defence aerospace. Flight control and stability laws, automated recovery algorithms, system management, sensor display and sensor fusion are built using similar algorithms. Nations with advanced systems software development capability in the civil aviation sector (USA, France) are also world leaders in defence aerospace.

Aero Structures

Aero structures are airframe components such as fuselage, wings or flight control surfaces. The structures need to be lightweight but strong in order to ensure higher payload capacity and better operating efficiency. Often, aero structures are of complex shape. Aero structure development requires high end designing infrastructure and engineering skills. The components have to be precision engineered. Often the components are made of special material (alloy or composite). Shaping such material into complex shapes requires specialised manufacturing infrastructure that goes beyond CNC machines.

Aerospace manufacturers are inclined to increase their use of composites. As compared to steel and aluminium alloys, composites are lighter, have greater strength and are more corrosion resistance. Composites have traditionally been used for manufacturing relatively simple, smaller, and non-critical components. These parts were made of flat or mildly curved monolithic laminates or sandwich panels. Aero structure manufacturers want to build ever larger composite aero structures to reduce aircraft weight and increase operating efficiency. However, designing and manufacturing large composite structures presents design and manufacturing challenges, which are spurring development of new manufacturing processes. Aero structures need to be tested and certified. Testing covers tensile, compression, flexure, fatigue, impact and compression after impact – all of which requires investments in infrastructure and engineering skills and establishing of best practices. Infrastructure and engineering skill requirements for civil aviation aero structure manufacturers do not differ substantially from those required for military aerospace.

Importance of R&D

The efficiency of airliners and the effectiveness of military aircraft are largely dependent on the quality of aero engines, aero structures, avionics and software used to build the aircraft. The technology for manufacturing these components is never easily shared. Take the case of aero structures. Companies such as Boeing continue to rely on aero structures manufactured either in-house or within the US. The company’s tie-ups abroad, including India (see below) are exclusively to gain market access. The company would not allow any dependency to creep in.

It is important to understand that aircraft component technology is intricately coupled with the existing industrial base, something that is not amenable to easy transfer! The capabilities to develop aero engines, aero structures, avionics and software are acquired after sustained and heavy investments in R&D and infrastructure. The US, EU, France and Russia have the infrastructure,

precision engineering skills and precision manufacturing capabilities to make civil airliners and military aircraft. The western nations often co-develop these components, without sharing critical technologies.

Indian Aviation Industry

India is the fastest growing civil aviation market in the world, as per the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In July 2015, India’s domestic air passenger demand grew by 28.1 per cent as compared to the previous year. This growth was three times as compared to China’s (10.9 per cent) growth and five times as compared to United States’ (5.9 per cent) growth during the same period.

In terms of civil aviation market size, India is the ninth largest, worth around $16 billion. The country has ten airlines, including three international carriers. The total number of civil aircraft is around 1,216, and civil helicopters, 280. In terms of manufacturing, India’s civil aviation industry was practically non-existent till a few years back. Since 2009, at least three private sector companies TAS, Reliance Defence, Bharat Forge and Mahindra have forayed into the civil aircraft production market segment. State-owned HAL has even launched a programme to develop and manufacture a regional airliner in collaboration with a foreign vendor.

Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL)

In June 2009, TASL and Sikorsky set up a JV in Hyderabad for manufacturing S-92 helicopter cabins. In 2010, TASL and Lockheed Martin established a JV in Hyderabad – Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures Limited (TLMAL) – to manufacture C-130J aero structures in India. In July 2014, TASL tied up with RUAG to set up a manufacturing unit in Hyderabad to make fuselages and wings for the new Dornier 228 aircraft. In September 2015, TASL and Boeing set up a JV in Hyderabad to manufacture Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter fuselages and other aero structures. The facility, which is expected to be operational in 2017, will eventually be the sole producer of AH-64 fuselages globally and will also pursue opportunities to provide systems integration and other aerospace services. TASL and Russia’s Sukhoi are in negotiations for local manufacture in India of key Sukhoi Superjet 100 aero structures. Russia is hoping to sell 50 SSJ100 in India in the next three to five years. In July 2016 TASL and Bell Helicopter joined forces to develop both commercial and government (including military) rotary wing markets in India in the Light Utility and Reconnaissance segments. The TASL Bell JV will compete for the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) order.

Reliance Defence

In May 2016, Reliance Defence and Ukraine’s Antonov announced a partnership for production of dual version transport aircraft for military, paramilitary and commercial use in India. The market size is assessed at `35,000 crore in 15 years.

Bharat Forge

In May 2016, Bharat Forge and Rolls-Royce announced an agreement for supply of aero engine components. The agreement envisages supply of critical and high integrity forged and machined components for a range of aero engines including the flagship Trent Engine. Also, Bharat Forge is understood to be in talks with Safran (Turbomeca) to part-build the Kamov-226T’s engines in India. The helicopter is powered by two Turbomeca Arrius 2G1 engines.

Mahindra Defence

In July 2015, Europe’s Airbus Group and Mahindra Group struck a preliminary deal to build helicopters jointly for the country’s armed forces.

HAL: DO-228 Light Transport Aircraft

HAL signed an agreement to license-manufacture the DO-228 Light Transport Aircraft at HAL, Kanpur in 1983. Production of the aircraft started in 1984 and HAL Kanpur has since delivered 124 aircraft to customers including Vayudoot, the Indian Air Force, the Indian Coast Guard, the National Airports Authority, UB and the Indian Navy. Two aircraft configured for maritime surveillance have been exported to Mauritius and one has been supplied to the government of Seychelles.

HAL Regional Transport Aircraft

HAL proposes to manufacture a 50-80 seater regional aircraft in India in partnership with an overseas OEM with global presence. The aircraft would have commercial and military variants. Maximum all up weight shall be between 20,000 to 50,000 kg. The commercial variant of the aircraft would be able to seat 50-80 passengers with luggage, cabin crew and attendants. HAL is seeking partnership with the OEM of a proven in service state-of-the-art aircraft which can enter into service quickly with least investment and operating cost of aircraft. The prospective business partner would be required to provide the know-how to jointly manufacture, test and supply the aircraft to domestic and international customers.

The Journey So Far and Looking Ahead

Soon after independence, India attempted to create a defence aerospace industry through investments in public sector companies and organisations such as HAL and DRDO. After making some headway (HJT-16 Kiran Jet Trainer and Marut HF-24 fighter), HAL and DRDO efforts faltered. As a result of slow economic growth, bureaucratic disdain for the private sector and the relative isolation of India’s socialist economy, the nation’s industrial base fell behind global standards to an extent where it was not possible for HAL and DRDO to develop aircraft and aero engines that matched the performance of those developed in the West. HAL attempted to stay relevant as an airframe and aero engine manufacturer through license production of civil (Avro 748, Dornier Do-228) and military (MiG-21, Jaguar, Su-30MKI) aircraft. In the absence of heavy investments in R&D, world class industrial base and supply chain ecosystem, HAL’s attempts proved futile.

With the opening of the economy in the early 1990s, followed by opening of defence production to the private sector, focused efforts by organisations such as the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and introduction of a Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) mandating offset investments or ‘Make-in-India’ there are now clear signs of revival in aerospace manufacturing. Economic revival has spurred a boom in civil aviation increasing market size to an extent where potential aircraft component manufacturers in India are starting to salivate. Private sector organisations such as TASL have already seized the opportunities resulting from offset investments. ADA, GTRE and HAL have revived India’s aircraft and engine design capabilities to some extent. The ADA has also done pioneering work in aviation related software, developing flight controls laws to make fly-by-wire possible. An ecosystem of suppliers to support emerging players such as HAL, TASL, and Reliance Defence is beginning to emerge.

The outlook is positive, but progressing from aero structure and aero engine production to aircraft production has challenges. Japanese aerospace companies have been manufacturing a wide range of important civil, military and corporate aerospace products for decades. Their components are used on Boeing and Airbus airliners, as well as the engines that power them. However, Japan has struggled to develop its own commercial jets, possibly because Japan lacks a big enough domestic market. It’s only now that Mitsubishi is developing a regional airliner powered by P&W PW1000G family GTF engine.


India has never attempted to formulate a national vision for aerospace. Now is perhaps the time to do so. Propulsion, materials and avionics technologies are closely guarded secrets. The government needs to put in place a policy framework that seriously encourages public and private sector to step up R&D in these domains so that the country can break out of the import spiral. The policy framework should simultaneously incentivise the use of domestically produced aircraft and components.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union remained a world leader in aerospace despite lagging behind the West in electronics and materials by nearly a decade. Its aero engines were less fuel efficient, its avionics bulkier and its aero structures heavier, but they made do with what it had. It chose to be a player, knowing perfectly well it couldn’t be the number one. Following Western sanctions imposed in 2014, Russia is reverting to the Soviet era policy of relying on its domestic industry. Through determined effort, Russia has narrowed the technology gap and is now developing airliners (SSJ-100 Regional airliner, MS-21 narrow body short to medium haul airliner) and high bypass turbofans (PD-14 family) that nearly match the operating efficiency of Airbus and Boeing airliners and P&W and GE high bypass turbofans.

China is striving to acquire full scope aircraft manufacturing capabilities. It has made impressive stride in aero structures, avionics and software; but remains largely dependent on Russian help in aero engines. China is now on a similar trajectory as Russia. It is developing airliners (ARJ21 Regional Airliner, C919 Narrow body short to medium airliner) as well as high-bypass turbofans (CJ-1000A). China’s airliners would initially be powered by western engines, but later the country hopes to fit domestically developed replacements. Brazil also needs mention in this context. A developing country, Brazil exports regional jetliners around the world, including to India. The country has also done well in defence aerospace. It is now set to locally manufacture the Saab Gripen NG.

The state of the Indian civil aviation industry does not reflect the potential of the nation. We need to leverage the growth in civil aviation market as well as defence aerospace to stimulate a capability growth in aero structures, aero engines and avionics industrial base. Such capability growth would positively impact defence aerospace and truly make India a global power.                 (IDR)

by Sqn Ldr Vijainder K Thakur   

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