Israel likely to become India’s largest arms supplier

Here is a short history of India-Israel defence relations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the King David hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday.(AP)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the King David hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday.(AP)
Updated on Jul 05, 2017 09:36 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByPramit Pal Chaudhury

India and Israel have had a long and complicated defence relationship, characterised by New Delhi keeping Tel Aviv at arm’s length till the 1990s, when the two established full diplomatic ties. Since then, the two countries have warmed up to each other, though it took 25 years for an Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Here’s a look at the timeline of India and Israel’s defence ties

1962 and 1965
Caught by surprise by China’s attack in 1962, India asked almost everyone for weapons. Israel provided mortars and small arms. In 1965, faced with a US and Soviet arms boycott, India went to Israel again and received similar weaponry. Despite this, New Delhi refused to normalise ties with Israel.

Indira Gandhi asked then Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, for weapons to help fight Pakistan. Meir agreed, diverting weapons ordered by Iran to India. RAW had the arms shipped to Liechtenstein and then taken by air to India along with a team of Israeli instructors. The weapons were used by Indian soldiers and the Mukti Bahini to liberate Bangladesh. Later, Meir asked for full diplomatic ties, but Gandhi declined.

Israel offered to carry out an aerial strike to destroy the Kahuta reactor and Pakistan’s embryonic nuclear weapons programme. India had only to allow its fighter-bombers to use the Jamnagar air base for refuelling, and Indira Gandhi reportedly agreed to the attack in March 1984. However, the CIA got wind of the attack and warned Pakistan, which in turn warned India that it would bomb the Trombay reactor in retaliation. India aborted the mission.

Israel stepped in after the Soviet collapse to provide avionics to India’s MiG 21 bis fleet. Russia objected but lacked the technology and delivery skills of the Israelis. This began a continuing tradition of India mating Russian bodies to Israeli brains. Whether it is the Sukhois or the Brahmos cruise missile, the Russian airframes and engines are mated to Israeli radar and electronic systems. It helps that the Israelis are well versed with Russian weapons -- having captured so many when they defeated various Arab armies.

Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic ties with Israel, part of a larger Indian push to move closer to the Western camp after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But Rao was later to tell Israeli diplomats that, for him, the main motive was to find an alternative source of arms for India at a time when its Soviet arsenal was immobilised by a lack of spares and the US continued to impose sanctions on India.

Then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres called in at the then Indian ambassador and outlined the nuclear doctrine of Israel. Both recognised remarkable similarities in their respective nuclear strategies. Israel provided its technology to stabilise its warheads, a problem that had afflicted small nuclear arsenals. Cooperation has expanded since then. “Today such technical assistance is just the tip of the iceberg,” a senior Israeli official said.

Israel technicians were flown in during the Kargil War to install Litening targeting pods on the Indian Air Force’s Mirage jets. The lack of targeting equipment made it difficult for India to hit Pakistani targets in the mountains and post-Pokhran II sanctions, made it impossible to get such equipment from elsewhere. The pods helped India convert its 1000 dumb bombs into laser-guided munitions.

The US vetoed the Israeli sale of Phalcon early warning aircraft to China. Israel complained that without such big ticket exports, it could not sustain its domestic arms industry. Bruce Riedel and Ken Lieberthal of the Clinton administration recommended that Israel consider India as an alternative. A few years later, India agreed to a $1 billion plus deal for the Phalcon, the accompanying Green Pine radar and the rights to use the Israeli Ofek 6 military reconnaissance satellite when it passes over South Asia.

Indian special forces inducted the Israeli Tavor assault rifle, now part of the standard arsenal of many Indian security forces. There were complaints about its reliability under certain Indian climatic conditions, but Tavor’s maker signed a joint venture with Punj Lloyd and the rifle may be made in India.

The Barak 8 air defence system was sold to India for $1.1 billion. Israel agreed to make this an India-Israel co-production product and by 2010, the Barak ll was being produced with what the DRDO claimed were 70% Indian parts. It was tested on the INS Kolkata and will soon be fitted on all major ships of the Indian Navy, with the Israeli Navy planning to do the same. The Barak is now cited as a model for bilateral military cooperation.

India proved to be among the best customers for Israel’s drone industry. In 2015, India had a fleet of 176 Israeli-made UAVs, and in 2017, India has the largest fleet of Israeli drones in the world – even larger than Israel’s. India is expected to purchase its first set of armed Heron drones from Israel this year — a UAV especially adapted to fight in Kashmir’s climate and altitude.

Israeli arms exports to India grew steadily during this period. India, according to the SIPRI arms database, was the destination to 41% of these exports — by far the largest client for the Israeli defence industry. Israeli firms clocked up $1 billion a year in sales to India on average. In fiscal 2016-17, if India goes through with the Spike anti-tank missile deal, Israel will be for the first time the largest arms supplier to India.

A few months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, Indian Air Force fighters will join Israel and five Nato air forces in the so-called Blue Flag joint air force exercises. This will be the first time that the Indian military will be publicly holding such manoeuvres with their Israeli counterparts.

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