MMRCA – the most „strategic” arms competition in Asia?

LOGO BIULETYN CIM

RAFAŁ WIŚNIEWSKI

Analiza CIM no. 6/2011

Lipiec 2011

In April 2011 Indian Air Force (IAF) has down-selected two European fighters – Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale – for participation in the final phase of the competition for the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA).

As expected, this decision aroused a lot of controversy and is still hotly debated on technical, military and political grounds. From the very start the MMRCA competition attracted widespread interest, both in- and outside India. Analysis of its conduct can offer interesting insights into India’s defence policymaking, as well as local and global defence industry.

What is the MMRCA program about?

In August 2007 Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued the Request for Proposals (RfP) for an open tender to deliver 126 medium multirole combat aircraft for the IAF. Basically this undertaking was supposed to serve two purposes- one purely military, second concerning the defence-industrial sector. First and foremost new purchases were supposed to halt the slow decline of the IAF’s fighter force. Superior air power was seen as an important element of India’s military pre-eminence in South Asia during the last six decades. Currently, Indian strategists envision future conflicts in this region as short but intensive local confrontations with Pakistan or China. During such “local high-tech wars” (to borrow a term from the Chinese doctrinal vocabulary) ability to establish and maintain air superiority would be crucial for success. Recently “Aviation Week & Space Technology” cited internal report (produced every three years by Indian defence establishment) stating that IAF/PAF (Pakistan Air Force) combat force ratio is as low as 1.7 to 1 (while 2 to 1 is being considered as desirable). Moreover in coming years the ratio of air superiority fighters can fall from 5:1 to 3:1. The report allegedly lists three main causes of this decline: “unforeseen delays in the Tejas combat aircraft program; the near certainty that the IAF’s more than 300 Soviet-built MiG-21 interceptors and MiG-27 ground attack aircraft will be out of service by 2017; and the fact that the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement still has not been met a full decade after the air force first made its case for the new aircraft”.1

Moreover, recent trends go against the IAF not only on quantitative grounds. The quality of opposing air forces is also subject to significant improvement. PAF is in a process of integrating new F-16 C/D Block 50/52 and Chinese-built JF-17 fighters. Simultaneously the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) continuous its far-reaching modernization program, introducing even more 4th generation fighters (like Su27/30/J-11 and J-10) and flight-testing the newest 5th generation aircraft- J-20. According to well-respected analyst Ashley J. Tellis, a decade from now, PLAAF will field as much 4th generation aircraft as an entire present IAF combat fleet2. At the same time the pace of IAF’s modernization efforts is somewhat slower than one exhibited by its competitors. Although the introduction of Su-30MKI (considered to be among the most capable fighter aircraft currently in service throughout the world) constitutes a significant improvement, it does not solve all the pressing force structure problems. By 2017 a large fleet of several hundred obsolete Mig-21 and Mig-27 aircraft will be retired, ad its planned successor – the domestically build Tejas LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) – is considerably out of schedule. As an effect, IAF faces a gap in its valued fighter force while its main competitors modernize their inventories rapidly. And all this happens in a context of increasing regional tensions. Thus the MMRCA program is aimed primarily at improving crucial air warfare capabilities.

Another aspect of this competition concerns ambitious plans to develop indigenous defence-industrial base. For decades Indian leaders pursued the goal of self-sufficiency in production of arms and military equipment. Despite considerable efforts, its achievement still remains elusive. Ambitious domestic arms-development programs (like aforementioned LCA Tejas or Akash Surface-to-Air Missile system) yielded mainly record delays and claims of underperformance. Naturally there are also examples of successful undertakings, but in many cases (like with the advanced BrahMos Anti-Ship Missile) they were conducted in cooperation with foreign partners. Nevertheless Indian government is determined to realise its goal of creating world-class domestic defence industry. Foreign procurement of defence equipment has been made a part of this policy. The winner of the MMRCA competition is supposed to provide offset worth 50% of the total worth of the contract. What is more important only 18 first aircraft will be delivered from abroad, while the remaining 108 are supposed to be manufactured in India. Crucially, the Indian side expects generous technology transfer from the winning manufacturer, including the most sensitive avionics and software components. It is supposed to provide Indian aerospace industry with powerful injection of state-of-the art technology, another step on a long way towards fully indigenous production of modern combat aircraft.

The MMRCA competition attracted widespread foreign interest largely for two additional reasons. First, valued at ca. $10 billion it is one of the biggest tenders on the global defence market. As a matter of fact, those are not good times for combat aircraft manufacturers. Since the end of the cold war demand for such cutting-edge weapon systems dropped sharply. Many ambitious R&D programs have been cancelled and producers’ order books shrank considerably. Orders of this scale (more than 100 aircraft) are a rarity. What’s even more important, Indian defence market ranks among biggest and fastest-growing in the world. According to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India is the world’s largest arms importer. It has received around 9% of the volume of international arms transfers during 2006–103. Three basic factors lay behind the constant attractiveness of Indian markets for the international defence industry. First, the sheer size of the country’s armed forces (at 1 325 000 active-duty personnel the third biggest in the world) guarantees attractive scale of arms procurement. Second, due to it great-power ambitions, as well as demanding security environment (i.e. continued perceived threats from Pakistan and China) Indian government sees the need for acquisition of state-of-the art weapon systems. This customer expects its equipment to be of the most modern generation, with high technical and operational characteristics, suitable for high-intensity, large-scale conventional combat. It goes without saying that such customers are a rarity these days. Finally (as mentioned earlier), despite great effort Indian military will (in the foreseeable future) remain largely dependent on foreign suppliers of military equipment. For all those reasons all major global defence companies are very eager to establish a foothold on the burgeoning Indian market and the ambitious MMRCA program offers a superb opportunity to do just that.

In addition to military and commercial aspects there is also a distinct political dimension of the program. From its very beginning arms trade has been closely intertwined with international politics. Deliveries of military equipment formed an important part of alliance politics. After the end of the cold war India adopted a “multi-vector” diplomacy, seeking “strategic partnerships” with all key powers, but with an eye on flexibility and room for maneuver. From start the MMRCA tender was perceived by the prism of India’s relations with states hosting the competing aerospace companies. Practically all interested governments were involved in intense lobbying on behalf of their respective bidders. Such leaders like Barack Obama, David Cameron or Nicolas Sarkozy all discussed the issue with their hosts during visits to New Delhi. It was widely expected that the award of the MMRCA order would cement the strategic relationship with the state from which the victorious machine originated. Naturally, such decision would entail committing to a long-term relationship between the IAF and Indian aerospace industry and its counterparts in contractor’s home state.

How does MMRCA proceed?

The entire process of MMRCA selection is subject to Indian Defence Procurement Procedures. Those were introduced to tackle notorious problems affecting Indian military acquisition programs. At least since the end of the 1980s and famous Bofors scandal4 (which had significantly contributed to the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi’s government) defence procurement has been the source of constant headache for Indian leaders. Widespread accusations of corruption mixed with the sheer inefficiency of the procurement system, which often proved unable to deliver equipment desired by the armed forces. It is enough to mention that during the last two decades it was not uncommon for the MoD to return to Treasury large sums from unused acquisition budgets. Most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs was attributed to poor management and organization of defence bureaucracy, which was characterized by long delays in tender proceedings and endless (sometimes fruitless) deliberations. Small wonder that, lately, defence procurement reform became one of top priorities of the broader defence policy. In the case of MMRCA competition, MoD and government leadership was at pains to show that entire process will be conducted in a transparent, non-partial and procedure-centered way. In accordance with provisions of the law the entire procurement procedure has been divided into 8 steps5 :

  1. Formulating Qualitative Service Requirements
  2. Solicitation of Offers
  3. Technical Evaluations
  4. Field Trials
  5. Staff Evaluations
  6. Technical Oversight Report
  7. Commercial Offer Evaluations
  8. Contract Signing and Management

As we can see, greatest weight has been given to technical and operational (i.e. military) factors. The IAF has conducted extensive field trials of all competing aircraft, in itself a rarity in international aerospace tenders. They provided the backbone for the down-selection of two offers, commercial merits of which will then be evaluated. The Indian side stressed that political considerations were completely excluded from the selection process. It seems that outsiders (i.e. the competing companies, their host governments and most commentators) do not believe this claim. Nevertheless, the fact that technical evaluation conducted by the IAF has been given an immense importance, cannot be ignored.

Six companies participated in the MMRCA competition: Russian RSK MiG (with MiG-35), Swedish Saab (JAS-39 Griped NG), US Boeing (FA-18E/F Super Hornet) and Lockheed Martin (F-16IN), French Dassault Aviation (Rafale) and European Eurofighter Gmbh (Eurofighter Typhoon). What follows is a short commentary on strengths and weaknesses of respective offers.

The Russian offer was considered to be an underdog of the race. On the positive, the MiG-29 family of aircraft is well known in India. 64 aircraft are in service with the IAF, and the new naval variant MiG-29K will form the backbone of air groups for the new carriers (Vikramaditya and Vikrant) of the Indian Navy. Moreover it is a very capable combat aircraft (especially in “dogfight”- close-range manoeuvre air combat). The original variant is by now a bit outdated. Thus the MiG Corporation offered its newest MiG-35 variant with advanced avionics and rich weapon selection. Problem is, that this model in reality does not exist. It is more of a “show room” aircraft which would have to be fully developed and integrated after order from the first customer. Most of its avionics and weapon suit also exist mainly on paper (or in a model form) and is not yet operational. This feature also goes to the heart of problems with commercial evaluation of the offer. Although MiG-35 was (presumably) the cheapest model on offer (on per-plane acquisition costs), it had little to offer in terms of much valued technology transfer. Political considerations did not favour the MiG’s bid either. Generally, Russia enjoys close and good relations with India (in the form of “strategic partnership”), with special emphasis on defence-industrial cooperation. Russia is the biggest supplier of military equipment to India (according to aforementioned SIPRI report Russia accounted for 82% of Indian arms imports in 2006-2010 period)6. Effects of mutual ties are highly visible in the IAF, with large numbers of Su-30MKI aircraft in service and a joint program for development of fifth-generation fighter. But this fact can work for as well as against MiG’s bid. With so many ongoing joint programs it had been quite improbable that Mig-35’s defeat in the MMRCA competition would have damaged bilateral ties significantly. What is even more important, India is weary of growing to depend on single source of supplies for its armed forces. Those sensitivities have undoubtedly been strengthened by problems with performance and timely delivery of systems purchased in Russia. Prime example of this is the long saga of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), for which Indian customer had to accept additional costs and long delays.

Swedish JAS-39 Gripen NG aroused much of an interest among observers of MMRCA competition. This aircraft possessed many features which seemed to complement Indian expectations. Considering that MMRCA was supposed to fill the gap left after retirement of MiG-21 aircraft, it was argued that IAF would best benefit from a light fighter, which could complement its fleet of heavy Su-30MKI aircraft. Swedish offer fitted this description very nicely with light, very agile aircraft, advanced avionics and modest price. The problem was, as it turned out, that the IAF was actually looking rather for a “medium” aircraft. Bigger, two-engine competitors offered better characteristics such as sheer engine power, endurance, weapons load, etc. On the commercial side, it could have been reasonably argued that Saab (with its position as small aerospace company with uncertain future prospects) would agree to generous technology transfer to secure such a big order. But at the same time this was one of the weakest parts of this offer. Most of Gripen’s crucial components, such as engine, radar or weapons, are not manufactured in Sweden. Thus consent and cooperation of supplier companies and their host states would have to be obtained. Considering that the same entities are practically also competing for the MMRCA order, that could have proved tricky. As to the political side, it can be easily argued that India has little to gain from close strategic relations with little Sweden.

Considering abovementioned factors, it was expected that the final fight for the MMRCA order will be fought out among four competitors- two American and two European. American bids were considered as very competitive on military, commercial and (last but not least) political grounds. Both F-16 and F/A-18 represent basically the same generation of US fighters (entering service in late 70s and early 80s) and are currently workhorses of respectively US Air Force and US Navy’s Aviation. Lockheed’s machine is essentially a light fighter (although with greatly expanded capabilities), while the originally naval Hornet is a heavier two-engine fighter. What certainly stands for those aircraft are three decades of successful service, proven combat record and large user base (which guarantees continued logistical support and upgrades). One of the most common criticisms of both US entrants to the MMRCA program considers their age and (so to speak) specific “maturity”.

It was repeatedly stressed, that both fighters represent the previous generation of combat aircraft, and designed more than three decades ago, they are well after the half of their service period. As a consequence, their “growth potential” is limited (especially in the case of F-16). Although this opinion is not without merit, it is important to remember that American aircraft have been constantly modernised, and variants offered to India are the most advanced ones. In terms of airframe design, both F-16 and F/A-18 still offer excellent characteristics, comparable to newer-generation European fighters. Their avionics and weapon suits are rich and sophisticated. American competitors also poses a crucial characteristic not yet enjoyed by other bidders, that is an operational AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar. Without going into too much technical detail, those devices are the latest step in radar development and offer important advantages to host aircraft. Slowly AESA radars become a standard in newest-generation combat aircraft and this requirement was considered very important in the MMRCA tender. While all bidders included such equipment in their offers, only the Americans could provide radars which are in operational use at the moment. In Russian and other (Western) European cases, the devices are still in development (although in some cases in fairly advanced stages).

The commercial side of American bids seemed to be advantageous. It was claimed that the aircraft had been offered at reasonable prices (higher than their Russian and Swedish competitors, but much lower than European machines). Such claims are not unreasonable, considering that both F-16 and F/A-18 have been in non-stop production since almost three decades, repaying development costs and providing handsome profits for their manufacturers. Moreover, Lockheed Martin and Boeing benefit from the biggest domestic combat aircraft market in the world. Both companies are recipients of large orders from the US armed forces. Nevertheless, even if price was attractive, the technology transfer was a subject of persistent doubts. Experience teaches that both US government and American defence companies are very reluctant to share sensitive technologies and data with customers. Although Americans could have made all sorts of promises regarding industrial and technical cooperation with India, it was not unreasonable to believe that they would prove reluctant to provide sensitive material (like for example source codes for avionics’ software). On the political level, many in India believe that USA could be an unreliable supplier, i.e. one which could try to influence the way its products are used (by for example cutting deliveries of spare parts and components in times of crises). In Washington there was great expectation that the MMRCA order will be awarded to an American company, as a way of sealing the growing strategic partnership among the two nations. Although it is highly speculative at this point, the author believes that from New Delhi point of view, this scenario did not have to be as advantageous as advertised. In its arms procurement, as well as much wider foreign policy India tries to avoid too close an association with a single partner. That would limit highly valued room for manoeuvre. It could have been the case, that for the Indian leadership, an American MMRCA would be a step too far in the direction of dependency on the USA.

The two European bidders – Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon – although distinct aircraft have much in common in terms of what can they offer India in all three spheres concerned (military, commercial and political). Both are 4th generation fighters, which in their sophistication are second only to the newest 5th generation aircraft (namely American F-22 and F-35, as well as Russian T-50 and Chinese J-20, which performance is still a mystery). They both offer great air performance, highly advanced avionics and weapon suits as well as big potential for further development. Both aircraft represent the pinnacle of West European aerospace technology. As to their differences, Rafale is more of a multi-role aircraft, while the Typhoon has been designed primarily as a high-performance fighter. While the French machine can claim complete integration of air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, the Eurofighter lags somewhat in operational readiness for ground attack role. Dassault can point that its machine performed well in operations above Afghanistan and Libya. Typhoons also flew sorties in the Libyan conflict.

It is beyond doubt that both European aircraft are the most expensive from all competitors. It has as much to do with their technical sophistication as with the fact that they are at the beginning of their life-cycle and costs of their development must still be balanced by current orders. When analysing Dassault’s and Eurofighter’s bids in MMRCA competition it is important to consider the current condition of both aerospace companies. Although they can be called the “crown jewels” of their countries’ defence sectors, their future looks even more uncertain. In stark contrast with American giants, European companies’ domestic markets are small and getting even smaller. The West European defence market is smaller than its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic and (despite two decades of efforts to create a common European Defence and Security Policy) highly fragmented. EU countries manufacture three types of modern combat aircraft (i.e. Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon). Currently, this situation is exacerbated by deep cuts in European defence budgets forced by the pressures of financial and debt crises. All this amounts to a general trend, by which European aerospace companies practically cannot count on the domestic market to provide revenues necessary for maintenance and expansion of their commercial position. Thus the strong emphasis on increasing export sales. And here comes the difficult part. Dassault has been, till this date, unable to secure a single foreign order for the Rafale. The Eurofighter Gmbh was able to sold Typhoon to two clients outside the original 4-state consortium (composed of Germany, Italy, Spain and UK). Orders from Austria and Saudi Arabia amount to little less than 90 aircraft. Considering this situation, it is not surprising at all that both European companies are desperate to score a big export order for their aircraft. MMRCA with 126 aircraft and $10 billion of value can be seen as promised land by both manufacturers. The most important consequence of this lies in the fact that both European bidders are expected to offer unprecedented level of technology transfer to secure the deal. Those claims can be confirmed by the news of joint venture between Cassidian (former EADS Defence&Security, representing the Eurofighter) and Indian companies for joint development of advanced aerospace electronics or decision by the French government to allow full technology transfer of Rafale (including the AESA radar and crucially its software source codes). On the political side, it can be argued that turning to West European suppliers would show major partners (i.e. Russia and US) that their offers are not the only game in town.

Short-list and its implications

As mentioned earlier in this article, at the end of April results of technical evaluation by the IAF has been published. Two competitors who were selected for final commercial and offset negotiations are Rafale and Typhoon. The decision aroused a storm of controversy. Not surprisingly the loudest complains came from America. It seems that Washington was convinced that growing strategic partnership with India would grant its companies the order. It was widely speculated that political consideration played the leading role in the decision process, while Indian government sources consistently claimed that it was taken on purely technical grounds. Considering that the first stage of the offer’s evaluation was conducted by the IAF it is possible that the latter claim is closer to truth. But, like mentioned before, political considerations are always present in defence deals. At this stage it is useful to reflect on consequences of this choice in military, commercial and political sphere.

At the military level, the IAF has selected two most sophisticated and high-performing aircraft on offer. Both fighters, when and if, integrated into force, would significantly boost its combat capabilities and help to maintain superiority vis-a-vis main competitors. On the negative, serious doubts about the viability of the entire MMRCA program have been voiced in Indian military-expert community. Those reservations concern mainly positioning of the new aircraft in IAF’s force structure. Currently, Indian Air Force has 4 types of fighter aircraft in service (MiG-21, MiG-29, Mirage 2000, Su-30MKI). Soon they will be joined by the LCA Tejas and the new MMRCA machine. Around 2018 IAF plans to introduce a new fifth-generation fighter co-developed with Russia and based on the T-50 aircraft. Finally there is also a purely domestic fifth-generation fighter program (the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft- AMCA). Such a complex (or one can say chaotic) force structure is hardly rational. The big question is, how will the MMRCA fit between low-end light fighters (MiG-21, LCA Tejas), modernized medium aircraft (MiG-29, Mirage 2000), high-performance heavy fighters (Su-30MKI) and coming fifth generation aircraft and whether it will be cost-effective. Nevertheless it can be argued that MMRCA can be an insurance against failure or delay of the new planned aircraft (both not uncommon in Indian history) and an vital boost for the IAF’s fighter force in times of its declining posture.

When considering the commercial aspects of the deal questions arise about the affordability of the entire enterprise. Rafale and Typhoon are the most expensive of the offered aircraft (Ashley J. Tellis puts their unit price at respectively 85 and 125 million$)7. On the other hand (as mentioned before) both European bidders can offer generous and valuable technology transfer. Thus the winning aircraft could provide both the IAF and the Indian aerospace industry with promotion to the next generation of combat aviation. On the political side, as mentioned before, India is careful not to put all its eggs in one basket, in both diplomacy and defence procurement. By selecting a European offer it escapes dependency from two major suppliers (Russia and the US) and sends them a signal that Indian orders cannot be taken for granted and need to be hard-earned by truly competitive and attractive bids. Moreover both American and Russian defence industries can benefit hugely from numerous other common projects in India. Thus the MMRCA outcome does not exclude them from the booming Indian defence market. As mentioned before, Russia will supply India with the fifth-generation fighter, and at the same time US companies received many orders from New Delhi (e.g. for C-17 transport aircraft, M-777 howitzers, P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and C-130J special operations transport aircraft).

The question remains, which of the two finalists will turn victorious. That is hard to tell. Both aircraft are very capable, with closely comparable combat characteristics. As mentioned before the Typhoon is considered to be more of a pure, high-performance fighter, and (allegedly) it came out at the top spot from the technical evaluation. Nevertheless, calling Rafale inferior would be an exaggeration and the French offer has some other factors working in its favour. If data provided by Mr Tellis are accurate, Rafale is significantly cheaper than the Typhoon. Moreover, the French have already made very generous promises regarding technology transfer. In case of Eurofighter, there are actually four host states. This could complicate technology transfer procedures, but (in author’s opinion) it would be unreasonable to expect the partner nations to drag their feet during such an lucrative tender. It is worth noting that recently Indian government has signed a $2,4 billion contract with Dassault and Thales concerning large-scale upgrade of 51 Mirage2000 aircraft. In a separate contract IAF will acquire MICA air-to-air missiles which are also a part of Rafale’s weapons suite. Although all those factors point to Rafale, it is by no means certain that this offer will succeed. According to rumours, IAF personnel has a very high opinion about the Typhoon and prefers this machine.

No matter what the outcome, there are some broad conclusions to be drawn from the story of the MMRCA competition to this date. First of all, it shows that the focus of global defence market is shifting towards Asia. As fiscal constraints draw down defence budgets in developed countries, the growing demand for high-end arms evident in Asia will increasingly tie the fortunes of major international defence companies to this region. India stands out as the most promising market due to its ambition to remain at the cutting-edge of military technology coupled with underperformance of its defence industry. Second, the competition shows just how difficult the global defence market has become, even for such giants as Boeing, Lockeed Martin or Dassault. Just two decades ago it would have been unthinkable that leading aerospace companies of the industrialised West would be ready to share their newest technological achievements in order to secure a contract for ca. 100 aircraft in what was then considered a third-world country. Finally the MMRCA program is a testimony to India’s determination to maintain military predominance in South Asia and at the same time an ambition to create a world-class defence industry. It is a part of a wider trend of intensive defence modernization and arms-industry development throughout Asia. The kind of weapon systems procured in India, China and other regional powers suggests that their armed forces consider a high-intensity conventional combat scenario as realistic. This offers a sobering comment to the state of regional security.


1 „Combat Concerns” , Aviation Week & Space Technology, 4/25/2011, Vol. 173 Issue 15, p.34
2 A. J. Tellis, “Dogfight! India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011, p. 18.
3„India world’s largest arms importer according to new SIPRI data on international arms transfers “,Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 14.03.2011, http://www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/armstransfers
4 “Timeline of Bofors skandal”, NDTV, 4.03.2011, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/timeline-of-bofors-scandal-76775. 
5 A. J. Tellis, „Dogfight”, op.cit., p.4.
6 „India world’s largest arms importer according to new SIPRI data on international arms transfers “, op.cit.
7 A.J. Tellis, „Dogfight”, op.cit., p. 89, p. 95.

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