The Expected Upsurge in the Indo-Israel Defence Cooperation
Dr Alvite Singh Ningthoujam

Better Late than Never is what India-Israel ties are all about. Celebrating twenty-five years of diplomatic relations, both countries have pledged to take the ties to further heights. The growing bonhomie is clearly noticeable since late May 2014 when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Today, there is a significant deepening of cooperation in areas pertaining to science and technology, trade and commerce, agriculture, water management, socio-cultural field, academics and most importantly, military-security spheres. There is an ‘openness’, between the two countries, in discussing issues of mutual interests and concerns, and this is another manifestation of the upward trajectory of the relations.

A part of improvement in the overall ties, military cooperation is also on the rise. Beyond the patron-client sort of relationship, cooperation is also solidified by several joint collaboration programs. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi kick-started ‘Make in India’ project, Israel has shown its willingness to contribute to this initiative. For Israel, this is a significant way to invest in India which, in turn, will enable its industries to generate funds which are essential to sustain its research and developments (R&D) programs. Simultaneously, India needs assistance financial and logistical for some of its projects which are in the nascent stages. This convergence of interests gives further impetus to the ties and defence is one area which is getting benefited visibly.

Until recently, military-security cooperation was shrouded in secrecy. This was mainly due to the policy of the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which was supported by left-wing political parties, such as Communist party of India- Marxist (CPI-M), which still remains critical of India’s military ties with Israel.

While Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao from the Congress party, in January 1992, established full diplomatic relations, defence ties with Israel began to flourish only under the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. Now, the presence of right wing governments — BJP and Likud — has facilitated to a large extent the deepening of defence ties. What has also gone in the favour of New Delhi is the lack of a strong opposition in the Indian parliament due to which dealings with Israel are not as difficult as before. Moreover, the Indian chapter of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has become more of a conglomerate of elites, leftist intellectuals and activists and it is not a serious constraining factor. Therefore, the dwindling influence of these pressure groups gives a significant leeway to uplift the relations.

The burgeoning political ties, as is discernible today, are further augmenting the bilateral relations. For a considerable period, this was a missing ‘link’ due to which India and Israel had certain limitations in utilizing maximum potential of their interactions. This is now changing for the betterment, and is evidenced by the frequency in the visits of high-level leaders from both the countries. In October 2015, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel, and this was reciprocated by his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin in November 2016. Other visits included that of Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh to Israel in November 2014, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in January 2016, and Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon to India in February 2016 (he resigned in May 2016). As all the visits of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to the Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, had been stand alone, it is yet to be seen whether the impending visit of Modi to Israel will follow this pattern. As aptly mentioned by P R Kumaraswamy, the author of ‘India’s Israel Policy’ and a leading scholar on the subject, “A standalone visit to Israel will not only be in line with Modi’s engagement with the Middle East but would also send a powerful message to the international community that India is no longer apologetic about befriending Israel”. If this happens, the bilateral ties will be cemented further, more avenues for cooperation will surface, and the Indian defence sector will definitely gain from Israel. The visit of Modi is reportedly taking place in mid-2017 and Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, said that such visits should become “part of the routine” .

Comprehensive is the word that is best suited to describe the contemporary Indo-Israeli defence cooperation. Only months after the new Indian government took power, both the countries clinched a few important arms deals, including the announcement of the procurement of the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)-made Barak-1 anti-missile defence (AMD), systems in September 2014, at a cost of US$144 million. This was followed by India’s decision in October 2014 to buy 8,356 Israeli-made Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and 321 launchers at a cost of US$525 million. Securing this deal was a major achievement for Israel, coming amidst stiff competition from the United States (US)-made Javelin. Unresolved issues, however, in relation to military technology transfer mechanisms with the US saw India opt for the Israeli-made Spike.

Furthermore, the Indian government approved the purchase of ten armed Heron TP UAVs worth US$400 million from Israel, which will enhance reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities of its armed forces and they are likely to be delivered soon. In early March last year, reports surfaced about the impending decision of India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to approve a US $3 billion worth arms deal with Israel, and this includes two more Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS). The need for sophisticated radars has risen due to increase in cross-border infiltration. Procurement of such items will go in favour of filling gaps in India’s aerial surveillance capability. In 2016, Israeli-made Spyder surface-to-air missile (SAM) was the frontrunner as its Russian and Swedish competitors could not perform as per the expectations during the trials conducted by the Indian Army. This system will be deployed to tackle any hostile aircraft, cruise missile, surveillance plane or drones that attempts to violate Indian airspace. This was a part of the missile program worth US$2.6 billion of the said army.

Co-production and joint-ventures are becoming a hallmark of the cooperation. India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael and several other firms are currently undergoing programs for the development of long and medium-range surface-to-air missiles, various electronic warfare systems (EWS), avionics, subsystems and homeland security-related items. The successful test-firing of the jointly-developed Barak-8 LR-SAM (with a range of 70 kilometres) in December 2015 was a suitable example. Similarly, Rafael has joint ventures with private-owned Indian companies such as Kalyani Group and Reliance Defence System Ltd (along with others) in developing and manufacturing missile technology, remote weapon systems, advanced armour solution, surveillance balloons, air defence systems, etc. Adani Enterprises Ltd and Israel's Elbit Systems India Ltd agreed to forge a joint venture company, Adani Elbit Advanced Systems India Ltd (AEASIL), to manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in India. These ventures not only lessen the burden of manufacturing on the state-owned industries but also help in creating jobs in the private sectors, and will be helpful in the indigenization programs at later stages.

Until a few years ago, officials from both the countries refrained from talking openly about the Indo-Israeli defence cooperation. This was to avoid internal domestic pressures in India, particularly coming from the Muslim community, left-wing political parties and various civilian organisations. That made Ambassador Carmon recall that “We were not shy, ashamed”, to speak of the expanding (defense) ties. But considering the growing scourge of terrorism, India and Israel have enhanced their counterterrorism cooperation, and this is the reason why Israel is willing more than ever to provide India not only with finished military products but also with certain technologies. While all the Israeli expertise cannot be applied in the Indian context, there are areas, particularly in intelligence and information sharing domain, border management and cyber defence, where cooperation is expected to grow tremendously. The agreement to set up cyber security academies in India by an Israeli cyber security company, Vital Intelligence Group, is a significant move. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, talked highly of his country’s advancement in cyber security areas, and has offered “indispensable help” to countries that face cyber threats. The need to fight jointly the
“forces of extremism and radicalization” was flagged during the meeting between Modi and Rivlin last year. Moreover, as cross-border infiltration and terrorism are a common security challenge to both, Israel offered its expertise to India for strengthening border management along the Indo-Pak border. Representatives from India’s Border Security Forces (BSF) reportedly visited Israel in August last year as “as part of the acquisition of the detection system”. Cooperation in this field has been reinforced after the September-2016 Uri attack.

As a latest development, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), headed by Modi, has approved DRDO-IAI joint-development program for medium range surface-to-air missile (MR-SAM) system (50-70 km range) at a whopping cost of US $2.5 billion for the Indian Army. The delivery of 200 missiles for five regiments, with 40 units each, would begin from 2023. Coming in favour of the indigenization program, this system will be manufactured in India with 80 per cent contents manufactured in the country. This breakthrough came after the Aero India 2017 exhibition where Israel’s defence firms participated in large numbers. A joint-venture agreement and Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between IAI and India’s Kalyani Strategic Systems Ltd. (KSSL), Taneja Aerospace & Aviation Ltd. (TAAL) and Dynamatic Technologies Ltd (DTL) for production of air defence systems, mini UAVs and aircraft-related items, have been signed recently. In all likelihood, the volume of India-Israel defence trade presently estimated at US $1.0–1.5 billion annually will definitely see an increase with these agreements signed. This will, once again, make Asia-Pacific the largest importer of Israeli arms, a status which the region enjoys for the last few years.

Further, the longstanding cooperation in the field of science and technology has been reinforced by signing an agreement in late 2016. This will concentrate mostly in agricultural and medical biotechnology, human genomics, advanced materials and nanotechnology, imaging sensor & robotics, solar energy, communication & information technology, and lasers & electro-optics. Such steps would enhance industrial and R&D cooperation between academicians and techies, leading to further innovation and entrepreneurship. While both the countries engaged jointly in the field of space technology, no significant headway has been made in the last few years. But this is likely to change as Israel Space Agency (ISA) and its officials are increasingly showing interest in cooperating with Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for mutually beneficial projects, particularly in technologies related to earth observation, communication and rocket propulsion. Appropriately, out of the 104 satellites recently launched by India in a single flight, one belonged to Israel. These developments have illustrated that there are still a wide range of mutual benefits both countries gain especially with India's gradual disengagement from its staunch traditional and ideological foreign policy approach in the Middle East.

The prevailing security dynamics and challenges in both the regions, clubbed with the rising forces of anti-state actors, terrorism and extremism, will undoubtedly bind the relations stronger. Under such circumstances, military-security cooperation will remain a key element in the ties. While clauses around technology transfer will be viewed as an increasingly important factor in India’s arms trading, deals with Israel are also coming along with agreement for technology transfer. Moreover, with a slow-paced indigenization program, India would continue to need a reliable arms supplier like Israel for its widening defence needs. And now, the political climate is such that the overall ties are only expanding, and indeed, Sky is the Limit, as opined by Netanyahu little more than two years ago. This strategic partnership holds many more potential positive developments, for now and the near future.

(Originally published in Geo-politics, Volume VII, Issue X, March 2017, pp. 54-56.)
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