With Israel, is sky the limit?
New Indian Express (Chennai), Tuesday, January 29, 2008
The successful launch of 300 kilogram Israeli satellite on Monday by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C10) from Satish Dawan Space Centre in Sriharikota undoubtedly marks a new stage in the Indo-Israeli relations. Also known as Polaris, TecSar has a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), a radar system which is more advanced than the Ofek generation satellites that Israel currently relies on. This allweather satellite is capable of providing images with a resolution of up to 10 centimetres.
Media reports in Israel were quick to point out that this new spy satellite significantly enhances Israel's intelligence capability and offers a roundthe-clock monitoring of its principal foe in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran. With its lingering suspicions over Iran's nuclear ambition, the launch could not have come at a better time for Israel.
For the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Polaris is a vindication of growing international confidence in its ability to successfully place satellites in orbit. Not long ago, it placed an Italian satellite in orbit and the Indian space industry is keen to corner a significant portion of this growing market. With only a handful of countries capable of launching satellites, the market is rather lucrative and aspires to earn about Rs 750 crores before the current financial year ends in March.
The issue however, is not as straightforward as some would like to believe.
Launching of satellite, especially spy satellites, is never a simple commercial transaction, more so, if it involves Israel.
The pre-launch publicity which is normally associated with the ISRO was conspicuous by its absence. As one keen media observer noted, the formal announcement was made not by the space agency but Antrix, the marketing and commercial arm of the ISRO.
The launch was originally slated for late last year but had to be postponed a few times. While space officials attribute this to "technical difficulties" and weather, media reports suggest that the delay was due to intense "political pressures" from the Gulf countries.
No country is however, formally named. Given the tacit political understanding that exists between them and the Jewish State, the Arab countries are unlikely to lose their sleep over an Israeli spy satellite. Indeed some of the smaller countries like Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have unpublicised low-level Israeli representations on their soil. Hence, it is safe to assume that such pressures, if real, could have come primarily from Iran.
Not known for its restraint, the Israeli media was quick to flag the Iran ian angle. Unnamed Israeli officials were quoted as saying that the Polaris gives "Israel the capability to keep an eye on the Iranian nuclear programme." In the light of the tension and war of words between Israel and Iran, such statements are bound to paint India as an active collaborator in Israel's military strategy vis-à-vis Iran.
Put simply, should Israel resort to a military option against Iran's nuclear installations in future, Polaris would be pivotal. Perhaps it was due to this consideration that the launch was surrounded with secrecy.
Second, though the space agency might present it as a commercial enterprise, India's participation in the Polaris highlight India's growing military-intelligence cooperation with Israel. Spy satellites are often clear political signals. Through the launch India also signals its growing confi dence in forging security partnership with Israel. Since the relations were established in January 1992, military relations primarily benefited India.
Through arms sales and upgrading of aging Soviet weapons, Israel significantly contributed to the Indian military establishment. For its part Israel benefited economically.
The satellite launch marks a new phase and indicates India's willingness to play an active part towards Israeli security calculations. By enabling Israel acquire real-time intelligence over its adversaries India is enhancing Israel's security.
Three, the launch should not be seen in isolation. Last July the Cabinet Committee on Security approved a $2.5 billion project for the development of missiles capable of intercepting aircraft and other aerial targets. To be undertaken jointly by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries, this was a marked improvement in India's security ties with Israel.
From the erstwhile the cash-and-carry approach, New Delhi took a quantum leap towards joint defence research.
Four, the launch was also a subtle but firm message of the UPA government to the coalition partners, especially to the Left parties. Since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada by the Palestinians in September 2000, the Left has been highly critical of the bilateral relations. When the BJP was in power, it even depicted them a part of the anti-Muslim agenda of hindut va. Hence, after Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister in May 2004, the Left parties were demanding "a course correction" and the freezing of all military-security ties with Israel.
Not only did the UPA government not oblige the Left, but it has also taken bilateral relations to a higher level.
Joint missile defence and Polaris launch are a part of its willing to consolidate is military-security ties with Israel, despite the Left. Unlike the NDA, the UPA government is more transparent in disclosing its military transactions with Israel. Furthermore, such actions challenge the argument that the Indo-Israeli relations are a part of the anti-Muslim agenda. When the Cong party which is conscious of its Muslim support base is seeking military cooperation with Israel, the antiMuslim rationale depicted by the Left becomes impossible to sustain.
The launch, however, could generate some criticisms, concerns and negative reactions. Given the Israeli rhetoric, Iran is bound to react strongly. Some in Tehran might even accuse New Delhi of joining hands with the "Little Satan", the ayatollahs favourite expression for the Jewish state. As happened following India's vote in IAEA in September 2005, Iran might link the spy satellite to ongoing price negotiations over energy supplies. Despites its own problems with the ayatollahs, Egypt which is yet to come to terms with the Indo-Israeli normalisation, might join the chorus.
Other countries however, would not be blind towards the larger realities. India's bilateral relations with the Gulf countries are independent of Israel and vice-versa. Put it differently, Israel will not be able to address India's energy security and the Arab world can't address India's military security.
As the ISRO Chief Madhavan Nair aptly described, the Polaris is "a landmark event." But definitely not for the technical finesse of the launch.