Moving closer to Israel

Print edition : February 28, 2003

The Israeli Super-Dvora Mk II fast attack craft, bought for the Indian Navy. -

After decades of secretive defence cooperation, India and Israel have come out in the open with Israel emerging as India's second largest arms supplier after Russia.

INDIA recently concluded a $20 million agreement with Israel Military Industries (IMI) for Tavor 21 5.56 mm standard assault rifles (AR) and Galil 7.62 mm sniper rifles in addition to varied night vision and laser range finding and targeting equipment as part of the heightened defence cooperation between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. Israel today is India's second largest weapons supplier after Russia.

Israel is also to train four new Special Forces battalions the Army is raising to fight the Kashmiri insurgency following a decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Officers and men from the proposed battalions, trained by Israeli specialists in "irregular warfare" and armed with Israeli weaponry, will be attached to the Northern Command in-charge of the Kashmir frontier and internal security operations in the war-torn region.

The contract for over 3,400 ARs and 175 to 200 sniper rifles was finalised late last year by a "specially empowered" Ministry of Defence (MoD) committee, which visited Tel Aviv to upgrade the capabilities of India's Special Forces. In fact, IMI is yet to conclude a contract to supply Tavor 21 ARs for the Israeli Defence Forces, replacing the M16 ARs they now use.

After tension with nuclear rival Pakistan spiralled, following the December 13, 2001 suicide attack on Parliament House, the Army has been working to equip and train its Special Forces to play a more "pro-active" role to deal with cross-border insurgency. Military sources said India was considering the acquisition of "several thousand" more Tavors to equip infantry units currently armed with AK 47 assault rifles, some 100,000 of which were bought from Romania in 1995. Some units use the locally designed and built Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56 mm assault rifle, but this is no longer being issued to frontline units due to unspecified "problems" with its overall performance in Kashmir's cold climates.

Armament industry sources said IMI won the contract after Germany's Heckler & Koch, then owned by BAE Systems and Royal Ordnance Defence of the U.K., was reportedly refused an export licence to sell several hundred MP5 9 mm submachine guns and around 150 PSG-1 7.62 mm sniper rifles. The German/U.K. bid was selected following an evaluation process that included Belgium's Fabrique Nationale and Switzerland's SIG.

After years of dealing with military issues in a scientific manner, a decade after New Delhi and Tel Aviv formally established diplomatic relations, the two countries set up a joint defence cooperation group around end-2001. Ostensibly, this was to help India plug key gaps in its military capability and to improve its internal security environment, but in reality it was intended to boost flagging Israeli military sales in an internationally depressed market.

Besides, the Hindu nationalist BJP, which leads a coalition government at the Centre, also considers Israel its "natural ally" and strategic partner, "wholly dependable" in times of conflict. "Russia delivers the hardware - tanks, aircraft and ships - and Israel provides the smaller weapon systems, the radar, the electronic control systems and other high-tech add-ons," an Indian military official said.

Bilateral defence relations had also been kept under wraps to prevent them from affecting New Delhi's ties with the Arab states, including Palestine, on whom it is largely dependent for its energy needs. But the 1999 Kargil conflict changed all that, for at that point Israel dug deep into its military equipment reserves to supply ordnance and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in order to give the ill-prepared and ill-equipped Indian Army the edge over Pakistan in the 11-week-long war.

In late 2001, the Director-General of Israeli Defence Ministry, Major-General (retd) Amos Yaron, made an unscheduled stopover in Delhi, while ostensibly on a trip to Bangkok, to meet Yogendra Narain, the then Defence Secretary, to establish a Joint Working Group (JWG) for defence. Headed by the respective Defence Secretaries the JWG, which meets every year alternately in New Delhi and Tel Aviv, has prepared a road map to cement military ties, deal with defence purchases and joint ventures and to co-ordinate intelligence and related security matters. Besides, innumerable defence delegations visit either country frequently.

With Pakistan acquiring short-and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking deep inside the country, India has turned to Israel for advanced surveillance equipment and an anti-ballistic missile defence system. Consequently, it has acquired two Israeli Green Pine radars and supplemented its capability with aerostat balloons and UAVs to meet its immediate needs against a Pakistani missile assault.

As an additional boost to Indian capability, the United States has cleared the sale of three Israeli airborne early-warning and control (AEW&C) Phalcon systems to India for over $1 billion, almost two years after negotiations for them started. While this agreement is cloaked in half-denials and unclear statements, an Israeli military official recently claimed that in recent discussions with his Defence Ministry, Washington had not opposed Israel selling India the Phalcon. Yogendra Narain said the plan to buy the Phalcon, which can track up to 60 targets over an 800 km radius, was a matter of "operational detail" and could not be elaborated upon.

For nearly two years India has been awaiting U.S. approval for three AEW&C Phalcon systems mounted on Russian IL-76 transport aircraft. On its part, the U.S., which was anxious to avoid an arms race in the region between India and Pakistan, was keen to avoid an arms race between itself and China, as Israel had negotiated a deal with Beijing for the Phalcons. The U.S. feared that the Phalcon would give China the military edge over Taiwan and the U.S. in the event of a conflict.

Since U.S. technology had been used in the Phalcon and India was under U.S.-imposed sanctions following its 1998 nuclear tests, Israel had little choice but to stall negotiations with New Delhi. But sanctions against India - and Pakistan - were lifted in September 2001 - reportedly clearing all hurdles in the sale of the Phalcon.

Israel has equipped the IAF's Sukhoi-30k with avionics and weapon systems.-T. A. HAFEEZ

Military planners claim that India plans to supplement the Phalcon and Green Pine radar systems with around 150 Russian designed and developed Antey 2500 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) launchers costing around $2.5 billion.

One Antey battalion is an ABM module operating within an integrated, automated air defence system capable of simultaneously engaging up to eight intermediate range ballistic missiles or 16 tactical ballistic missiles fired from an optimum distance of 300 km or closer. The Antey, which can also be launched vertically, is likely to be deployed to defend key Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai besides strategic and nuclear installations. Its acquisition was reportedly discussed during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's last visit to Moscow, alongside the purchase of other missile and naval systems to bolster India's nuclear deterrence.

But Indian defence officials expect problems with China over the Phalcon deal, as Israel backed out of the deal to sell Beijing the AEW&C system following U.S. opposition. China now insists that Israel stand by its contractual obligation or reach a "satisfactory solution" after cancelling the Phalcon deal in July 2000. China wants Israel to pay over $1.26 billion in compensation for reneging on the deal. This includes Beijing's advance payment, the interest on it and $1 billion as penalty for cancelling the sale.

An Israeli delegation has begun negotiations on a compensation package with Beijing. Reports indicate that it could be in the region of around $230 million. Resolving the Phalcon dispute and improving relations with China are important for Israel, which wants to avoid any legal complications. Israeli negotiators are likely to declare that the cancellation was an "act of state", not unprecedented in arms deals. The U.S. had reportedly threatened to cut $2.8 billion of its annual aid to Israel, if the Phalcon deal with China went ahead.

Meanwhile, Israeli defence companies, aided by officials of SIBAT, the Israeli Ministry of Defence Foreign Defence Assistance and Defence Export Organisation, have appointed scores of agents in India to sell their wares.

And, over the past two years India has awarded the Israeli firm Soltam a contract to upgrade 180 130 mm M-46 field guns to 155 mm/39 calibre and 155 mm/45 calibre at a cost of about $250,000 each. The Israeli firm will also provide India's Ordnance Factory Board kits to retrofit another 220-250 M-46 guns to equip some 25 artillery regiments. Under the Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, the Army plans to standardise its wide range of artillery guns to 155 mm/45 calibre and 155 mm/52 calibre.

Israel Aircraft Industries is closing negotiations on upgrading the IAF's MiG-27 aircraft.-SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP

Israel also supplied around 40,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition for around $1200 apiece and 30,000 rounds of 160 mm mortars for around $400 each during the Kargil war, while the Navy is arming its three locally designed "Delhi" class destroyers and INS Viraat, its lone aircraft carrier, with Israel Aircraft Industries' Barak-1 missiles. The Navy has also acquired three Super-Dvora Mk II fast attack craft for around $4.30 million. Israeli firms also revamped INS Viraat's electronic control systems four years ago for an undisclosed amount.

Israel has also provided avionics and weapon systems for 40 Russian Su-30 MkI multi-role fighters India bought in the mid-1990s in addition to being one of three vendors involved in upgrading 125 MiG 21 bis fighters which are now being retrofitted at Nashik with advanced avionics and weaponry.

Israel Aircraft Industries is also closing negotiations to upgrade MiG-27 Flogger attack aircraft, Jaguars and Sea Harriers. Imminent Israeli purchases include UAVs capable of operating at 11,000 to 15,000 feet and above, VHF radios and thermal imagers for the fire control system to upgrade around 600 Russian T-72 main battle tanks and hi-tech fencing for sensitive military bases in Kashmir. Israel is also likely to be involved in upgrading electronic systems for the Navy's planned purchase of the former Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which is being offered for the price of its refit, estimated at around $600-700 million. Defence Minister George Fernandes, during his Moscow visit in January, indicated that the Gorshkov deal was imminent.

India and Israel have also formulated a joint ministerial commission for exchanging intelligence on terrorism. Israeli security officials are understood to visit Kashmir's border regions regularly. Media reports during Home Minister L. K. Advani's Israel visit in 1999 had hinted at closer nuclear relations between the two, but both sides downplayed the reports. Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who is acknowledged as the "father" of the country's nuclear weapons programme and is now the President, had visited Israel twice in the 18 months prior to the Shakti tests at Pokhran. This led defence analysts to speculate that Tel Aviv might have violated U.S. government embargos by exporting to India sensitive and dual-use nuclear technologies.

"Israel's established reasoning with Delhi is that like itself, India is surrounded by hostile neighbours and is a nation under siege that needs to strengthen its security apparatus," a military officer said, declining to be named. Former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh on a visit to Israel two years ago tacitly confirmed this belief when he declared that dependence on "Muslim vote banks" by previous governments had "uselessly delayed" establishing closer links between Delhi and Tel Aviv. "Reciprocal visits by Indian and Israeli military, security and intelligence officials are aimed at just keeping this notion alive," an Indian security official said.

Besides, Israeli equipment is indigenously retrofitted, facilitating transfers that are not subject to arms control regimes. Such an alliance could prove "invaluable" in times of conflict, he added.

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