Indo-Israeli military ties enter next stage
A US$2.5 billion Indo-Israeli defense project marks a new phase in the two countries' relations.
Commentary by P R Kumaraswamy for ISN Security Watch (03/08/07)
India's recent decision to develop jointly a new generation of surface-to-air missile with Israel is a quantum leap in the two countries' relations.
In early July, India's Cabinet Committee on Security chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approved the US$2.5 billion defense project with Israel. The development of missiles capable of intercepting aircraft and other aerial targets at a range of 70 kilometers to be undertaken by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries.
This is not only the largest single deal involving Israel but also marks a new phase in defense-related cooperation between the two countries.
Ever since diplomatic relations were established in January 1992, both countries have actively cooperated in the defense arena, with India obtaining a large number of small arms, weapons, avionics, ship-launched Barak missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel.
Counter-terrorism and border management techniques figure prominently in these regular deliberations.
Within the next few weeks, India will launch the first Israeli satellite, and there is speculation in the Indian media that it will be a spy satellite.
In recent years, service chiefs and other senior military officials have been periodically visiting one another. In May this year, the Indian Defense Minister informed the parliament that from 2002-2007, India obtained over US$5 billion worth of military weapons and systems from Israel. Others suggest that in 2006 alone India's defense imports from Israel stood at US$1.6 billion.
The bourgeoning Indo-Israeli military ties are helped by favorable winds from Washington: its endorsement for the Israeli sale of Phalcon airborne early warning systems to India was a case in point. This deal estimated at over US$1 billion dollars came against the background of the US vetoing similar sale to China.
The new decision on missile development conveys a number of strong messages. Until now, Indo-Israeli military ties have largely been a cash-and-carry affair. India's desire to modernize its aging Soviet-made weapons and defense systems were made possible by Israeli expertise in upgrading and avionics. Though important, this approach has its limitations, especially when Israel does not develop major platforms that India requires for defense modernization.
Since normalization, there were suggestions that meaningful long-term cooperation would demand greater synergy between the two defense establishments. A number of on-going programs in India are not radically differently from their Israeli counterparts. These include plans to develop light combat aircraft, main battle tanks, missiles such as Prithvi and Agni, unmanned aerial vehicles and early warning radar systems. The joint missile research therefore signals that both countries are confident about moving beyond traditional arms sales and onto the next stage.
The timing of the decision is equally important. Ever since Manmohan Singh became India's prime minister in May 2004, the left-leaning parties have been demanding an end to military cooperation with Israel. Though they are not formally part of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), their support is vital for the survival of Singh's government.
In recent years, the communist parties have been critical of India moving closer to Israel. For them, seeking "strategic ties" with Israel represented a betrayal of the Palestinians and were harmful to India's interests. They even argued that closer military ties were the result of the "anti-Muslim agenda" of Israel and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Shortly after the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, they demanded the recall of India's ambassador from Tel Aviv.
When Singh became prime minister, "a course correction" in New Delhi's Israel policy became a major foreign policy agenda for the Left. For them, military cooperation with Israel when the latter was brutally subjugating the Palestinians would make India a party to Israel's crimes.
Singh, who was leaning to the left on various domestic issues, could approve such a massive joint military research with Israel but it would also have to be considered within the domestic context. Partly to dispel apprehensions of the Left and silence the critics, a few days after the missile cooperation was approved on 23 July, Indian Defense Minister A K Antony told the media, "Successive governments since 1992 have had defense ties with Israel. This is not new. And the relation is not ideological, but purely based on our security requirements."
The decision indicates a growing Indian confidence vis-à-vis Israel. In the past, India was extremely apprehensive of any public display of friendship with Israel. By seeking greater military cooperation with Israel, New Delhi signals greater self-confidence and indicates that it does not anticipate any problems with Arab and Islamic countries over such relations.
New Delhi has not allowed its differences over the Palestinian issue to undermine its defense ties with Israel. For a while, there were suggestions that New Delhi would become the second most important partner for Israel after Washington. With its troubled relations with Europe, Israel is increasingly looking to other players like India for long-term relations. Seen in this larger context, the missile deal not only marks a synergy between the two defense establishments but also has all the ingredients of a strategic partnership.