Israel’s state-of-the-art weapon systems and technological expertise are a mainstay of India’s drive for a self-reliant defense industry.
India and Defense Indigenisation Initiative
In the present-day India, under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government headed by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, there is a greater push for indigenisation in the defense sector, that is, to develop and produce defence items within the country. In order to make the country a self-reliant nation in defense production, a few important steps have been announced by the government recently, including gradual “banning of imports of select weapon systems; corporatisation of ordnance factories; enhancement of Foreign Direct Investment in defense sector on automatic route [raised from 49 per cent to 74 per cent]; and quick defense acquisitions based on ‘realistic’ “General Staff Qualitative Requirements” of the three services. The focus, therefore, is clearly on augmenting domestic production under the ‘Make in India’ initiative (which was launched in September 2014), with an aim to promote Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-Reliant India Mission), a clarion a call given by the PM during his address to the nation on 12 May this year.
For the last good five years, India has remained the second largest importer of arms in the world, next to another close partner from the Middle East – Saudi Arabia. But this is the status which the current political dispensation is attempting to change in the coming years. It is by placing importance on homegrown defense manufacturing programs, New Delhi has made transfer of technology (ToT) as one of the components of strategic partnerships with some of its international weapons suppliers, including Israel, the United States (US), Russia, France and the United Kingdom (UK). Alongside their traditional arms trade, there are ongoing discussions regarding ToT with these global arms exporters.
One of the factors that has triggered the need for establishing a self-reliant defense industry is the rapidly rising security challenges facing by India, which demand a round-the-clock availability of military equipment for all the three services and related law enforcement agencies. This is mainly in the light of the escalating threats from cross-border terrorism as well as aggressive and expansionist behaviour of a few neighbouring countries, which also have increased threat perceptions in the Indian subcontinent. Further, as explained by a strategist, “indigenisation of a defense industry is a necessary and worthwhile national security objective, particularly for a large country like India with an expanding economy, a wide variety of security challenges, and growing international obligations.” As in the Israeli case, there is also economic incentives of having a robust defense industry, since exports of domestically developed weapon systems will earn foreign currency and drastically cut import bills, which could then lead to the subsidisation of the country’s annual defense budget.
As the above-mentioned initiatives mostly pertain to long-term planning by the Indian government, the country occasionally will continue to import certain categories of armaments from external sellers. This is mainly because some of the defense industrial base remains underdeveloped as compared to Western exporters and it will take time to manufacture technologically advanced systems. Added to this limitation is the failure to deliver timely indigenously developed items. A source, in late 2019, indicated that no major ‘Made in India’ projects in the defense sector had taken off since the inception of this initiative. Under such circumstances, it is very likely that India will use longstanding defense cooperation with countries like Israel to modernise its armed forces, to face emerging security challenges. By exporting state-of-the-art defense items as well as incorporating Israeli technology in some of the joint-collaborative programs, Israel and India have created a synergy not only between the governments but also between defense firms, and the enhanced arms trade is manifest.
Comprehensive Indo-Israeli Arms Trade
Undoubtedly, Indo-Israeli bilateral ties were strengthened tremendously after BJP came to power in May 2014. Since then, the camaraderie between the two countries is visible in numerous fields, including agriculture, water, science and technology, education, healthcare, trade and commerce, and, most importantly, defense and security. This cooperation forms the backbone of a growing strategic partnership which could have important implications for both countries in the economic, political, and security realms. Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017 (the first visit to Israel by an Indian head of government) is what truly sparked the development of strong political ties. Both sides used this rare visit to raise the status of bilateral relations to that of a “strategic partnership.” Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu’s reciprocal visit to India in January of 2018 paved the way for further expansion of overall bilateral ties. These visits reflected the importance accorded by both countries to promoting bilateral ties, with defense cooperation one of the mainstays.
Military-security cooperation in the form of arms trade as well as technology transfer and licensed production has emerged as an important dimension of the Indo-Israeli strategic relationship and this pattern is likely to continue for some time. As it is, Israel’s share in India’s defense market began to increase significantly from 2014 on. During the period 2015-2019, India’s arms imports from Israel increased by 175%, making the latter New Delhi’s second largest supplier of major arms. The importance of defense cooperation, moreover, was underscored during Modi’s visit, when both the leaders “agreed that future developments in this sphere should focus on joint development of defense products, including transfer of technology from Israel, with a special emphasis on the Made in India initiative.” The maturation of defense cooperation is signified by existing collaboration programs, involving Israeli technology in the field of missiles, air defense systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and more.
While most of India’s purchases from Israel were initially confined to surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering equipment, including maritime patrol vessels and Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), the latter has become an important supplier of light arms and ammunitions. It should be mentioned that Israeli-made weapons, such as Tavor assault rifles and Galil sniper rifles, are being used by Indian security forces. Alongside this, India also has appreciated Israel’s proficiency in upgrading Soviet-origin weapons systems, which constituted a significant portion of its defense stockpile. In the past, for instance, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed contracts with the Indian Air Force (IAF) for upgrading the avionics on Russian-made MiG-21 aircraft. Continuing with such salient engagements, both countries, since mid-2014, have signed various defense deals.
One of the first breakthroughs, in terms of India’s arms imports from Israel, was the announcement made by the BJP-led government in September 2014 that it would procure Barak-1 anti-missile defense (AMD) systems, manufactured by IAI. This was a significant step, mainly noting the depleted defensive capabilities of the Indian warships. Further upgrading the cooperation, both sides successfully test-fired (in December 2015) the Barak- 8 Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LRSAM), jointly developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), IAI and the Indian Navy (IN), aboard an IN’s Kolkata class destroyer. Significantly, prior to Modi’s mentioned visit, India’s Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) signed a contract worth $630 million with IAI in May 2017 to jointly develop four LRSAM for the IN. In March of that year, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) also cleared the purchase of additional two Israeli-made AWACs at an estimated cost of $1.1 billion (an item which the US vetoed Israel from selling to China during late 1990s). The decision taken by the Indian government to procure this technology is timely and strategic, considering the rising airborne threats, which has also increased an urgent need for more ‘eyes in the sky.’
It is worth mentioning that Israeli-origin defense items were important during the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. The quick response to India’s request for military assistance during this conflict increased Israel’s credibility as a reliable arms supplier and helped in bolstering the relationship. Likewise, following the Balakot airstrikes in February 2019, the Indian Air Force (IAF) spoke of arming its fleet of Sukhoi Su-30MKI multirole fighters with the Rafael-manufactured I-Derby ER (extended range) beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), after the service phases out its aging Russian-made Vympel R-77 (AA-12 ‘Adder’) AAMs by 2021-22. The IAF opted for this radar-guided missile because of its superiority over Russian technology, which reportedly failed to intercept Pakistani missiles during the dogfight in February 2019.
Furthermore, after using Rafael-developed SPICE (Smart, Precise, Impact, Cost Effective) 2000 bombs in the Balakot airstrikes against terrorist training camps, the IAF signed another deal with Rafael to procure a batch of these items, with delivery slated for September last year. Following this clash, the Indian Army (IA) also reportedly approved an “emergency purchase” of 240 Rafael-made Spike medium-range (MR) anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and 12 launchers for immediate operational requirements. In the wake of current border tensions with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Eastern Ladakh region, India is considering acquisition of more Israeli defense items, including Negev light machine gun manufactured by Israel Weapons Industries (IWI). This clearly demonstrates how some of Israel’s defense products have caught the attention of the Indian armed forces because of their performance in times of crisis.
For the last several years, Israeli-made high-altitude and medium-altitude UAVs have become sought after items in India, for help in protecting borders and sensitive sites. By duly recognising the quality and technical specifications of the IAI-developed Heron TP drones, India (in mid-2018) reportedly approved the purchase of 10 such systems at a cost of $400 million. These UAVs could carry a payload of over 1,000 kilograms and would be equipped with air-to-ground missiles with the capability to detect, track, and take down targets deep in enemy territory. India is already operating Israeli-origin Searcher UAVs for surveillance and intelligence gathering purposes. Moreover, as the IAF has started conducting cross-border airstrikes (first time since the 1971 Indo-Pak War), these systems would prove to be of immense utility in the event of another similar strike in the future. Following the recent standoff at the LAC, Indian military and the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) are reportedly deploying Heron medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAVs to provide technical surveillance.
Strengthening cooperation in the field of UAV, IAI signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in February 2020 with Indian firms – Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Dynamatic Technologies Limited (DTL) – to manufacture advanced UAVs in India and to market the products abroad. A couple of years earlier, a similar initiative was agreed between India’s Adani Defense and Aerospace and Israel’s Elbit Systems to launch Adani Elbit Unmanned Aerial Vehicles complex at Hyderabad in Telangana (in India). This joint collaboration is the first private UAV manufacturing facility in India and the first one outside Israel to manufacture Hermes 900 MALE UAV. Such a collaboration could also be seen in the small arms category as India’s Punj Lloyd Raksha Systems and IWI agreed (in May 2017) to establish a manufacturing plant in Madhya Pradesh (in India) to produce advanced weapons, such as X95 assault rifle, Galil sniper, Tavor assault rifle, Negev light machine gun, and the Ace assault rifle. These are some of the popular Israeli arms systems which would be useful for India’s law enforcement agencies.
Israel has earned an international reputation in the development of some of the most-advanced missile and anti-missile systems. In 2019, rockets and air defense systems constituted 15 per cent of its total arms exports (with a value amounting to $7.2 billion), and India is one of its top clients. Indicating its preference, in May 2017 India test-fired Rafael-made Python and Derby (Spyder) missiles. In July 2019, India’s Kalyani Rafael Advanced Systems (KRAS) bagged a contract worth $100 million from Rafael to supply the IAF and the IA with approximately 1,000 missile kits for Barak-8 missiles. Cooperation in this domain, however, has also been extended to co-production. For instance, under an agreement signed between the IA and DRDO in July 2018, the latter will jointly develop with IAI Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MRSAM), at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. This particular system would have a substantial indigenous component. The MRSAM is a land-based variant of the above-mentioned LRSAM, which the IN test-fired again in mid-2018 and early 2019. As recent as February 2020, IAI and BEL have entered into a MoU for collaboration on establishing a new center for providing product lifecycle support, including repair and maintenance services for the air defense systems in India. The need for these items has increased in recent times due to the aggravation of threats on India’s territorial sovereignty.
It is evident that the growing strategic partnership between India and Israel increasingly involves long-term co-development and defense production programs as well as technical support. These aspects are crucial from the standpoint of India’s current military modernization initiatives and the drive for localised production of armaments. Both countries consider the collaboration between Indian and Israeli defense firms on sophisticated defense technologies to be a success.
The strengthening of ties in this specific domain has come at this juncture when the two countries are facing both traditional and non-traditional security threats. Increasing demand for defense items due to these emerging security challenges, the quest for technological advancement in defense industries, and Israel’s readiness to meet some of the requirements of India – will lead to further expansion of defense cooperation. As Israel continues to design and develop a wide range of state-of-the-art weapon systems, it will remain an important source of defense equipment and technology for India. And Israel’s technological expertise is sure to be a key source in India’s drive to develop a self-reliant defense industry.
* Dr. Alvite Ningthoujam is a non-resident fellow at the New Delhi-based Middle East Institute. He previously served in the National Security Council Secretariat in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office.
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