Military & Aerospace

Indo-Israel Defence: Cooperation and Future Prospects
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Issue Vol. 34.1 Jan-Mar 2019 | Date : 18 Nov , 2020


The diligent researcher could trace back trade and cultural relations between present day India and Israel to the contacts between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Babylonian culture. Indian and Biblical writings bear plentiful allusion to commercial and intellectual interaction between the two distant and disparate regions. Of greater interest are the relations that evolved during the birth pangs of both India and Israel. India gained independence in August 1947, and Israel was declared a Jewish state in May 1948. The historical circumstances of India’s partition on religious lines impinged heavily on India’s stance on the Jewish demand for a state of their own. While accepting that the Jews had a good rationale for demanding their state, Mahatma Gandhi disagreed with its creation on religious grounds.

During the dying days of the British Mandate, India voted against the partition of Palestine and after Israel was formed, it opposed Israel’s entry into the United Nations. Hindu nationalist leaders supported Jewish nationalism, but Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru was wont to drag his feet so as not to antagonise friendly Arab nations in the region. This confused state of affairs continued until 1950, when India formally recognised Israel, but it was only in 1953, that Israel was permitted to set up a Consulate Office in Mumbai. Full diplomatic interaction was however, avoided at that time as Indian foreign policy compulsions favoured good relations with the Arab nations who naturally supported the Palestinian cause. Relations between the two have come a long way since then, with pragmatism triumphing over inflexible external affairs perceptions. India’s economic growth and maturing of foreign policies have enabled these changes which in turn, have impinged on defence cooperation between the two.

Evolution of Indo-Israel Relations

Indo-Israel defence cooperation was a slow starter, predicated to the overall relations between the two which, as mentioned above were subject to divergent tractions. Even after the recognition of Israel, ambassadorial relations were absent for more than four decades. The restraint appeared to be more from the Indian side which had trepidation on several domestic and international counts. Internally, Indian polity was wont to weigh the Muslim vote which would swing away from any party that favoured normalisation of relations with Israel. The Indian National Congress, the majority party during the period under discussion, opposed the concept of Israel on the rather nebulous pretext that its formation was based on a religious ground (like Pakistan’s) and was thus unacceptable in principle. Moreover, a large number of Indian citizens were working in the Arab nations in the Middle East, with substantial inward flow of remittances. Antagonising these host states would have effectively smothered the flow of funds. Oil from Arab nations was the other major factor that tempered India’s approach to normalising relations with Israel. India’s growing industrialisation meant increased energy needs which were being met largely from Middle East oil.

On the international polity, India was a part of the Non Aligned Movement which leaned towards the Palestine Liberation Organisation and hence away from Israel’s wisdom. India’s inimical relations with Pakistan and US support to Pakistan as a part of its own strategic vision in the context of the Cold War had pushed India closer to the USSR and India was fervently trying to neutralise Pakistan’s influence with Arab states with whom it shared a common religious ground. Visits at high level were sporadic and desultory until the 1990s when perceptions metamorphosed enough for a thaw to occur. In 1992, India set up its embassy in Tel Aviv; this was a turning point in Indo-Israel relations which have prospered since then in tangible and subtle terms. The climactic high points in the recent past have been the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel in 2017, and that of Prime Minister Netanyahu to India in 2018. Defence cooperation to the mutual benefit of both nations has been a spin-off of the improvement in relations.

Defence Cooperation

Defence and security cooperation is possibly the most crucial strategic meeting ground for both nations. Common perceptions on internal security as well as strategic interests have been the premises of strengthening ties in the defence and security areas since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1992. Both favour collaborative ways to deal with the mutual threats through interaction between respective military and counter-terrorism experts. In February 2014, India and Israel signed three important agreements – Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Cooperation in Homeland and Public Security and Protection of Classified Material. Under Cooperation in Homeland Security, four working groups were set up in the areas of border management, internal security and public safety, police modernisation and capacity building for combating crime, crime prevention and cybercrime.

During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to India in 2018, a blueprint for deepening bilateral relations was prepared for the next 25 years. It laid particular emphasis on areas such as defence, homeland security and cyber security. In the area of defence industry, there have been discussions with the active involvement of the public and private sectors in order to strengthen sustainable and long-term cooperation. During his visit to Israel, Prime Minister Modi exhorted Israeli defence firms to take advantage of the liberalised Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) regime that India had instituted. Defence ties between the two nations also include intelligence sharing on terrorist groups and joint military training.

In 2017, India sent a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft to Israel, along with a 45-member contingent, including Garud commandos, to participate in a multi-nation exercise called ‘Blue Flag-17’ in which the air forces from the US, Poland, Italy, Greece, France and Germany participated as well. This was the first time that an Indian contingent participated in an Israeli military exercise involving the Air Forces of the two nations.

Defence Imports from Israel

The realm of Indo-Israel defence cooperation has progressively widened over the years to include other domains such as space, counter-terrorism and cyber security. Nonetheless, the most important aspect of the cooperation is still that of Israeli arms sales to India. Defence cooperation has also been vastly beneficial to the Indian defence services as Israeli defence industry is at the leading edge of technologies in almost every area. Israel was one of the main suppliers of weapons to India during the 1999 Operation Vijay in Kargil. Currently, India is Israel’s biggest arms market, buying more than $1 billion worth of weapons every year. Conversely, Israel is the second-largest defence supplier to India, the first being Russia.

The most significant import from Israel has been in the area of Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unarmed Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). The first acquisition from the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) was the Searcher Mk I with the Army taking the lead in 1996, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Navy acquiring it in 2000. Searcher Mk -I is a multi-mission, tactical UAV for surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, artillery adjustment and damage assessment. It can operate missions of up to 20 hours and has a range of 300km. Searcher Mk I was followed by Searcher Mk II, an improvement over Searcher Mk I and had a day/night capability for surveillance missions.

In 2003, Israel offered to India the Heron Mk I produced by IAI as Machatz-1. In fact, the offer was of mutual benefit to both countries as Israel was constrained by its terrain to carry out full and meaningful trials of the Heron while India’s topography presented variegated types of terrain to try out the new UAV. India was the first operational user of the UAV – even before the Israeli military inducted it. The Heron is a vast improvement over the Searcher and can undertake missions of up to 52 hours duration with a ceiling of 35,000 ft although it is normally used for 40-hour sorties at an altitude of 30,000 ft with a range of 3,000 km. Typical payload is 250 kg with options of electro-optical and thermal surveillance equipment, SAR radars for ground surveillance, maritime patrol radars and sensors, signals and other intelligence collection antennas and equipment, laser designators, or radio relays. The Heron being an improvement over the Searcher, was expected to replace India’s entire inventory of Searcher Mk I and Mk II UAVs, but that has not happened.

In May 2018, the government also approved a $400 million plan to procure the Heron Mk II or Heron TP-XP variant which is specially designed to cater to the needs of international customers using a variety of payloads including missiles which render it a UCAV. This is the first drone with the Indian military to have a missile carrying capability. It is larger than the Heron Mk I, and can carry a payload of one tonne although the version given to India is limited to carrying only 450 kg, but this can include air-to-surface missiles capable of detecting, tracking and striking targets deep into enemy territory. It can climb to 45,000 feet and has a range of 7,400 km with a maximum flight time of over 36 hours. The UCAV is well-suited for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, in addition to its capability of carrying missiles for offensive roles. It meets the Indian military’s need to attack terrorist camps or individual targets in hostile territory with minimal risk, substantial surprise and no exposure to pilots.

Yet another UCAV from the IAI stables which Indian defence forces acquired was the Harop which is developed from the Harpy UAV and is sometimes referred to as Harpy Mk II. It was displayed at Aero India 2009 and is a Loitering Munition system i.e. it is a UCAV and a lethal missile. It has a small radar cross section and can easily deceive aircraft detection systems. It carries 23 kg of explosives and can search, identify and loiter above military targets like surveillance bases and radar stations before attacking them. If it fails to find a target, it is programmed to return and land back at its base. The Harop operates within a range of 200 km and can endure over nine hours of flight on one refuelling. India inducted 50 Harop suicide drones in 2013-2014, and in February 2019, the government approved the acquisition of another 54 Harops. Reportedly, the volume of UAVs/UCAVs being contracted for from Israel is going to keep rising despite some being procured from the US as well, largely due to lack of indigenous capability. The current UAV/UCAV holding of the Indian military is estimated to be 200, but, given the veil of security that surrounds the actual inventory numbers, this figure needs to be engaged with caution.

Besides UAVs, Israel has excelled in technology supporting aircraft, battle tanks and naval vessels. The Indian Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) EL/M-2075 Phalcon, was inducted in 2009 after a $1.1-billion deal with IAI. Three AWACS were installed on the Russian transport aircraft IL-76 in a trilateral agreement. Phalcon performs the surveillance and intelligence gathering beyond visual range to warn against the incoming missiles or aircraft. The EL/M-2032, a multi-mode airborne fire control radar designed for strike missions in air-to-air combat and air-to-sea combat. Reportedly, nine EL/M 2032 have been imported from IAI for the Tejas LCA Mk-I aircraft. A contract has also been signed for 83 ELM Active Electronic Scan Array (AESA) radars and ELL 8222WB EW suites for Tejas Mark 1A.

Indian defence imports from Israel also include guided bombs, Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missiles (BVRAAMs) and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). Some of these are multi-purpose and can be launched from land, sea and aerial platforms. Had Israel been an aircraft producer, undoubtedly India would have looked at a good Israeli fighter aircraft as the first choice. In any case, the IAF’s combat aircraft have been using Israeli equipment for operations as complementary adjuncts. Israel’s Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective (SPICE) is a guidance kit for converting unguided bombs into precision guided bombs. The IAF’s Mirage 2000 aircraft used SPICE 2000 bombs for the Balakot mission in February last year. The SPICE guidance kits upgrade the general missile warheads into lethal automatically guided precision strike bombs. They can be adapted to different aircraft and can bomb up to 60-km range.

Produced by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, the SPICE-2000 is a highly advanced bomb that uses a unique image-matching algorithm to hit targets. The algorithm compares the real-time electro-optic imagery of the mission site with the already fed GPS information of the target acquired through surveillance. Once these images match, the Spice automatically launches the warhead into the target with up to 95-percent accuracy. India had purchased 100 SPICE kits in 2009, and after its success at Balakot, has placed orders for more. The IAF combat squadrons also have the IAI-produced Griffin system produced by IAI’s MBT missile division. This is an add-on kit that is retrofitted on unguided bombs to render them Laser Guided Bombs. Griffin also offers a GPS-based guidance option.

The IAF also uses Israeli BVRAAM missiles Python-5 and Derby. The former is an Infra Red seeking Air-to-Air Missile which can be fitted on to IAF’s Mirage 2000, Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-29 and Su-30. It is also planned to be fitted on Tejas. Derby is an active radar Air-to-Air Missile which can be used for both short range and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) interceptions. Reportedly, India had procured 750 Python-5 and Derby missiles each in 2017. The IAF also has on its inventory Crystal Maze, an Indian variant of the Air-to-Surface Missile AGM-142A Popeye which is jointly developed by the Israeli company Rafael and US-based Lockheed Martin. It can be used to carry out high precision strikes on targets at distances up to 80 km. Reportedly, India had procured 30 Crystal Maze from Israel in 2010, and used an undisclosed number during the Balakot strikes.

In 2017, India also acquired from Israel the SPYDER-MR air defence system, a Low Level Quick Reaction Missile (LLQRM) system developed by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems. It is used to protect critical assets from aerial threats including aircraft, helicopters and UAVs. It uses electro-optic payloads and wireless data-link communications to ensure all-weather, multi-launch and network-centric capabilities. The surface-to-air missile BARAK, another Israeli SAM, was approved by the government in 2018. Its long range version used by India is called BARAK-8 or BARAK LRSAM (Long Range) for the Indian Navy and Medium Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) system for the Indian Army. The naval and the army versions of the missiles are being jointly developed by Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) since 2006 and 2007 respectively. In January last year, the DRDO carried out a test of the BARAK LR from INS Chennai, a destroyer and declared it successful. Its range is said to be 150 km while the MR version has a range of 70 km. An earlier version, BARAK-1 is already in use with the Navy.

India had cancelled a deal for Spike LR Anti Tank Guided Missiles two weeks before Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to India during which the final deal had been slated to be signed because the DRDO claimed it could produce a matching one. India had tested a couple of Spike missiles with all hits on target. Rafael, the Spike OEM, had publicly stated that the DRDO missile would be a third-generation one and would never match the fourth-generation Spike. DRDO, expectedly refuted the claim and, indeed was able to coerce Israel into a retraction of sorts. After L’affaire Balakot, India acquired 240 Spike missiles and 12 launchers through the emergency procurement route for deployment on the Western border in October last year. The DRDO substitute, if it ever emerges, is unlikely to match the Spike.

Israeli industry excels in producing electronic sensors of various hues. India has purchased several sensors from Israel for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes for its naval vessels and aircraft and used for ground surveillance, multi-purpose, air search and fire control radars. These include EL/M 2248 MF-STAR and EL/M-2221 STGR radars for the Indian Navy. The former is an AESA multi-function radar used for maritime surveillance with a range greater than 250 km (corvette version) and 450 km (frigate version), 360° azimuth coverage and elevation coverage of up to +85°. The EL/M-2221 STGR (Search Track and Guidance/Gunnery Radar) is a fire control radar that guides the warhead to air or sea-based targets. From 2015 to 2017, India imported the STGR radar to make INS Kolkata, INS Shivalik and Kamorta-class frigates compatible for deploying BARAK-8 SAM missiles, also of Israeli origin. 

Future Prospects

As far as defence technologies are concerned, India continues to suffer from the inefficiencies of the public sector; the behemoth DRDO looms over the defence industry. Private industry has had a late start and even now is handicapped by government patronage to the DRDO. Israel has adopted a unique approach to its aerospace and defence industry and, instead of aiming at large complexes producing big aircraft or naval vessels, has specialised in UAVs, missile defence systems, avionics, precision-guided munitions and surveillance radars. Its readiness to export its wares to India, and also to partner with Indian entities, is something that India needs to exploit for the future. If that can be done under the auspices of the ‘Make In India’ programme, it will be good for the nation. Some encouraging connections have already been made in this direction.

Several joint ventures have been formed by IAI besides the tie up with DRDO for joint production of BARAK missile systems. In 2017, IAI had signed an MoU with Kalyani Strategic Systems to develop, build and market-selected air defence systems and lightweight special purpose munitions. IAI also has an agreement with Dynamatic Technologies and Elcom Systems for the production and maintenance work of mini-UAVs in India. IAI’s Golan Industries Division has signed an MoU with Taneja Aerospace & Aviation Ltd. for the development, production, marketing and sale of civil and military aircraft seats. IAI has also inked an MoU with Premier Explosives Ltd. IAI and Wipro Infrastructure Engineering have announced a strategic alliance to manufacture composite aero-structure parts and assemblies.

Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, which is government owned, has entered into a JV with Kalyani Strategic Systems, a defence arm of Kalyani group. The joint entity, Kalyani Rafael Advanced Systems Pvt. Ltd. has invested in high-end technology and advanced manufacturing techniques to develop missile technology, command and control systems, guidance systems, electro-optics, remote weapon systems, precision guided munitions and more. Rafael has also signed an agreement with Hyderabad-based Astra Microwave Products Ltd. to build tactical radio communication systems, electronic warfare systems and signal intelligence systems.

In December 2018, Adani Defence and Elbit Systems inaugurated the first India-Israel joint venture Adani-Elbit Advanced Systems India Ltd. at Hyderabad. This facility will manufacture high-technology, cost-effective Hermes 900, a multi-purpose, all-weather UAV. Cyclone, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems has signed an MoU with Mahindra Aero Structures to collaborate on the production of aero structures parts and assemblies.

Mahindra group’s Mahindra Telephonics has an agreement with Israel’s Shachaf Engineering to jointly develop strategic electronics sub-assemblies and systems for aerospace, marine and automotive applications. India’s Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division and Israel’s DSIT Solutions have an agreement to jointly produce and supply Portable Diver Detection Sonar to the Indian Navy. India’s Dynamatic Technologies Ltd. and Magal Security Systems of Israel have entered into an arrangement for India’s smart border management initiative. India’s Punj Lloyd and Israel’s Israel Weapon Industries Ltd. have set up the first private sector small arms manufacturing plant in Madhya Pradesh to produce equipment for both local and export use.

Indo-Israeli defence cooperation has spilled over to space as well. Indian Space Research Organisation has launched satellites for Israel, including TecSAR, a military reconnaissance satellite. As Israel has significantly advanced technological expertise in building satellites and as India has a world class space organisation, the potential for collaboration is attractive. The future for Israeli joint ventures with Indian entities looks promising and both India and Israel appear happy to collaborate in mutually beneficial arrangements.

Concluding Remarks

The course of Indo-Israeli relations appears to be steady. There is an openness and no-conditions nuance to our trade relations, and there is a partnership tenor to the defence cooperation. Some analysts even describe the relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’ – one that dovetails Indian appetite for defence products, unsatiated by indigenous defence production and Israel’s voracity to seek international markets for its defence industry’s merchandise (three-fourth of its defence products is sold outside of Israel). Moreover, in terms of Transfer of Technology, Israel has not displayed the usual tight-fisted attitude that other nations supplying military wares to India have.

India stands to benefit more from the defence cooperation facet of Indo-Israeli relations than Israel. As a corollary, the expanding defence cooperation will lead to further consolidation of ties between the two. With Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, relations between the two nations have moved into a higher gear, with defence sales forming the mainstay of the association. Israel would be keen to deepen the relationship further so as to use India’s support in international polity. It is in India’s interest to play along and take advantage of the opportunity to involve Israel increasingly in assisting Indian defence industry to move towards maturity. As a postlude, it may be worth flagging the point that the future prospects of Indo-Israel defence cooperation are likely to be directly proportional to the private content of Indian participation in joint ventures with Israel.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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