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Israel has become India’s top defence partner but the relationship is ambiguous 

By Syed Nazakat

The war was raging. From bunkers atop mountain passes in Kargil, Pakistani soldiers were shooting at any object moving on the highway towards Kargil. In 1999, weeks before hostilities erupted, Pakistan army chief General Pervez Musharraf had crossed the Line of Control (LOC) in a helicopter and spent a night with his troops, 11 kilometres inside Indian territory. His plan was to cut the Indian Army’s supply lines from Srinagar to Leh and Siachen. India’s battle-hardened soldiers were struggling to evict their Pakistani counterparts from the surrounding heights. Two Indian fighter jets snooping over the Batalik sector were hit by a Pakistani stinger, exposing the limitations of India’s reconnaissance platforms. With the loss of a MI-17 helicopter the following day, the military soon realised it was badly equipped to face the heavy artillery shelling from Pakistani positions across the LOC.

On the recommendation of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the government decided to procure military equipment and ammunition at the earliest. A decision was taken to approach Israel. “We were surprised by the sudden request from India,” says Ilan Biran, former director general of the Israeli ministry of defence. “But we knew it was an opportunity to show our desire to build a partnership with India.” India’s demand was met almost immediately by Tel Aviv, which supplied precision-guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ammunition, thus helping to alter the course of the conflict in India’s favour, and firmly forging Israel’s reliability as an ally. 

The nature of Israeli military supplies to India remains a secret. Israel has a policy of not commenting on its military weapons programmes. India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has also maintained a silence regarding its ties with Israel. But the rate at which the Jewish state has made inroads into India’s defence market is indeed incredible. 

Over the past few years, Israel has become India’s second largest supplier of military equipment, after Russia, with sales nearing $10 billion. On the other hand, India is the largest customer of Israeli military equipment. India’s military ties with Tel Aviv have been one of the most reliable and fruitful security relationships India has had with any country. “It is a relationship based on tangible interests and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” says a top Indian military official.

Israeli defence companies will further upstage global defence giants, in India, as they pitch for big ticket deals that include a billion dollar contract for Phalcon AWACS  (Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems), a

Rs. 15,000 crore worth next generation anti-tank guided missiles, night vision devises for the Indian Army and the paramilitary forces, an upgraded tactical air defence system and a wireless Unattended Ground Sensors (UGS) intruder alarm system that will aid in stopping infiltration along the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are also a series of contracts concerning the up-gradation of Russian-supplied weapons systems, including aircraft, artillery and tanks. India is keen on acquiring the Arrow-2 anti-ballistic missile system built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and American Boeing, that has been used in Israel since 2000 to counter Iran’s Shehab-3B missiles. 

On top of the list is the Iron Dome, an anti-rocket defence system that Israel has successfully used to intercept short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from Gaza,  showcased in February at Aero India in Bangalore. “Iron Dome is one of the most effective antimissile systems in military history,” says Biran, who now heads Rafael, one of Israel’s leading defence companies and manufacturer of the Irom Dome. Rafael executives are understandably proud and show a YouTube video of a wedding in the Israeli city of Beersheba where guests are unmindful of incoming missile threats. The missiles are not visible in the night sky until the ascending Iron Dome interceptors find and destroy them. The wedding party goes on, uninterrupted. “Rocket attacks had created such a fear among our people,” says Biran. “But the Iron Dome really has changed the dynamic.” The Indian Air Force (IAF), however, is not fully convinced about its utility in India. “We have seen the performance of the Iron Dome in the limited conflict between Israel and Gaza (November 2012),” said Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne. “It proved very successful in their environment. Somehow, I feel that in our context―our borders are far too long and our airspace more congested―the Iron Dome is not the answer.” He, however, expressed interest in the mid-range missile defence system David’s Sling, also developed by Rafael with US defence contractor Raytheon. During his recent visit to Israel, Browne discussed the up-gradation of UAVs, which India has been using for a while now. 
Today, Israel’s presence in the Indian border security domain is such that it virtually guards India’s borders. The range of sophisticated equipments include UAVs, TISAS (Thermal Imaging Stand Alone Systems), hand-held thermal imagers, LORROS (Long-Range Reconnaissance and Observation Systems), night vision devices, artillery radars, command and control systems and fire arms, mostly used along the Indo-Pakistan borders in Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan. The home ministry now wants to implement the Israeli border surveillance technology along the 4096-kilometre-long border with Bangladesh.

Last year, a team led by former director general of the Border Security Force, U.K. Bansal, was deputed to Israel to examine the various technologies it used to secure its borders along the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Egypt, that could be implemented along India’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. A senior official told THE WEEK that they were particularly impressed by the effectiveness of UGS that can detect intruders before they reach the border. Developed by Elta Systems, a subsidiary of IAI, the sensors have four stationary antennas, each covering a 90-degree sector enabling persistent surveillance and tracking over a wide area. Several radars can be integrated into a single network to provide an integrated picture of a border area. 

India’s flourishing defence ties with Israel demonstrate that the relationship has come a long way. India did not subscribe to the Partition of Palestine plan of 1947 and voted against Israel’s admission into the UN in 1949. Even when it did recognise the Jewish state in 1950, ties remained cold for over four decades, mostly because of India’s traditional support to Palestine. Full diplomatic ties were established only in 1992, and in subsequent years the relationship grew mainly due to common strategic interests and security threats. “There were a number of factors which dictated our policy towards Israel,” says Lt General (retd) J.F.R. Jacob, who served as a British Indian army officer in World War II and, later, as chief of staff of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. “But now, the India-Israel relationship is finally out of the closet.” Jacob, a believer in Jewish exceptionalism, says that historically, Jews have always had a deeply ingrained ingenuity that has helped them survive and innovative. 

Soon after Israel declared independence in 1948, its small population faced serious security threats from neighboring countries. “It was our struggle to survive and protect ourselves from different threats that eventually helped us advance in technology,” says David Sasson, senior manager at Jerusalem-based defence firm, AccuBeat. “Otherwise, it would not have been possible for such a small country to lead in science and technology research.” AccuBeat, a niche defence supplier to India, is pitching for devices like GPS-Rubidium clocks and time and frequency control products for military communication, command and control systems. 

One of the earliest technology sharing deals came in 2003, when Israel supplied Elta Green Pine radarto India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It was an important component of Arrow Ballistic Missile Defence systems. The same year, India began negotiating for AWACS, for which Israel successfully prevailed upon the US―who had imposed sanctions on Israel post its 1998 nuclear tests―to supply the radar to India. The Phalcon deal offset conditions of sourcing a minimum 30 per cent of any contract locally, and the Israelis set up five artillery shells factories in India. “While three AWACS already stand operationalised in the IAF, there is a proposal for procurement of two additional AWACS,” said Defence Minister A.K. Antony during Parliament’s winter session. The AWACS radar, the most sophisticated to date, has strengthened India’s defence network as it can simultaneously track nearly 250 flying objects within a radius of 800 kilometers and also has a ‘look-down’ capability allowing it to monitor movements on the ground or at sea. India is now moving ahead with its own AWACS program, which was approved by the CCS on February 12, 2013. 

At DRDO, scientists agree that its radar program has substantially gained from its cooperation with Israel. Former President Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam was vocal about his pro-Israel stand on cooperating in R&D. “Dr Kalam was an incredible scientific leader,” says Avinash Chander, chief controller (Missiles & Strategic Systems), DRDO. “He knew that though the best option is to develop our own systems, he was a great believer in international cooperation in the field of defence research and design.” 

DRDO has undertaken a range of programmes with Israel that include joint development of Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) for the Indian Navy and Medium Range SAM for the IAF. The projects will cost 713,000 crore. The IAF and Rafael have also signed a $2.5 billion deal with DRDO for the joint development of an advanced version of the Spyder SAM. Security analyst and former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, Vikram Sood, feels that though India’s ties with Israel will grow, the partnership will have its challenges. “The question is, ‘What is the future of the ties given there are some political reservations about going all out with Tel Aviv?’,” says Sood. He says despite the robustness of Indo-Israeli defence cooperation, some constraints on closer relations do exist, including domestic political sensitivities, entry of foreign arms suppliers, and the Iran issue. 

Perhaps, due to these concerns, India turned down an Israeli request for an official visit by its defence minister Ehud Barak during Defexpo India 2012. Tel Aviv felt that Barak’s visit would demonstrate the growing defence partnership, but the MoD politely told its Israeli counterpart to drop its request. India, too, was guarded about sharing details regarding the investigation into the terrorist attack on an Israeli diplomatic car in Delhi in February 2012. In Tel Aviv, strengthening ties with India will remain a top priority. In Delhi, however, the policy revolves around defence supplies. That may not be the best news for Tel Aviv.

THE WEEK, April, 2013

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