Sisters in Arms: The Burgeoning Defense Trade Between Israel and India

While they don't see eye to eye on terror, Tehran and trade with China, India and Israel are closely engaged in the realm of defense. Reflections of a first-time 'western Asian' visitor to India.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

NEW DELHI – Any attempt to find resemblances between Israel and India is pretty much doomed to fail. Even during a short visit to New Delhi, for a professional conference, India floods one with experiences that are difficult to digest in a first encounter: vast masses of people, huge economic disparities, a tremendous variety of colors and smells.

From the perspective of a metropolis of 17 million people, Israel looks like a small, distant country with peculiar, almost trivial problems. When reasonably decent drinking water for the masses and clean air to breathe are goals beyond reach, the right of return or Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets seem to be almost theoretical issues. It’s also a question of one’s angle of observation: For the Indians there is no Middle East, only “western Asia.”

Nevertheless, a joint conference held here this week by both Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and a parallel research institute in India, the Observer Research Foundation tried to find a common denominator for the two countries.

Since full diplomatic relations between Israel and India were established in 1992, the two have gradually but significantly moved closer together – primarily on the basis of growing economic trade, centering around sales by Israel’s defense industry to India.

Even though India continues to maintain extensive relations with the Arab world, its commitment to the Palestinian cause seems to have slackened in the past two decades. Nowadays, its leaders make do with periodic lip service to the Palestinian plight, and they have long since stopped clashing with Israel over the subject. At the same time, the areas of dialogue with Israel are expanding, and include: fighting terrorism, security-related deals, and Israeli aid in areas such as agriculture and water desalination.

It’s in the defense sales realm that the trade balance between the two countries has leaped upward. A decade ago, the Indian army declared its intention to implement a modernization program, to which resources of tens of billions of dollars have been allocated. India has immense security forces: 1.3 million people in the regular army, 1.1 million in the reserves and another 1.3 million in other organizations, such as the Border Security Force. But the modernization project is proceeding lackadaisically, due to the long-standing weakness of the bureaucracy in India and the attempt by its Ministry of Defense to reduce bribery and corruption and introduce tougher oversight.

India is now the No. 1 export target of Israel’s defense industries. The two countries. Both India and Israel avoid revealing details about the scale and nature of their security trade. However, in 2012 Israel’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s total defense exports stood at $7 billion annually. India’s share of that is probably between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. And the potential for growth exists.

However, Israel has competition. According to Indian experts, Russia is the country’s largest weapons supplier, with Israel only a distant second. Recently, other weapons manufacturers, notably the United States and France, have been trying to increase their sales in the subcontinent.

India sets high threshold demands for cooperation with the international security industry, including establishment of joint companies and location of some of the assembly lines in India itself. Israeli firms have been relatively flexible in responding to these demands.

A partial list of the munitions that India has purchased from Israel in the past decade includes radar for the Arrow missile-intercept system, manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries; sea-to-sea missiles manufactured by IAI and Rafael Advanced Weapons Systems; IAI warning planes, communications systems made by Elbit and ammunition manufactured by Israel Military Industries.

However, the potential of the transactions that have been discussed more recently is of a far greater scale. The projects include the upgrading of tanks and other combat vehicles, the supply of Barak-8 advanced missiles for protection of seagoing vessels and maritime facilities, and observation systems. India has expressed an interest in the technological progress embodied in the operational success of the Iron Dome system, manufactured by Rafael, in intercepting rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, though it’s doubtful that Iron Dome is appropriate for India’s needs.

Deal in the works

In the face of the missile arsenal – and the nuclear capability – of Pakistan, India’s hostile neighbor, India must maintain commensurate strategic deterrence. The Indian authorities might thus be interested in systems, now under development, for interception of longer-range missiles.

The expansion of the defense trade is reflected in the prominent presence in Delhi of Defense Ministry delegations and representatives of leading Israeli defense firms. Israeli companies also take part in fairs related to the latest developments in the realm of ground forces, air forces, etc.

At the moment, a huge deal is in the works. India wants to purchase advanced antitank missiles. The two suitors competing for the contract, which has an estimated worth of $1 billion, are Rafael’s Spike anti-tank guided missile and the Americans’ Javelin system.

Israel is held in high regard in India, thanks to methods and technologies it has developed in the sphere of intelligence and the war on terrorism. In conversations here about the dangers of terrorism, discussions about the boundaries of what’s permitted and forbidden in combating such a threat are different from those taking place between Israelis and their colleagues in the West. The Europeans talk about the need for police actions against terrorists and are skeptical about the justification for preemptive action as a form of self-defense. Israel, which came out looking bad in the Goldstone report after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, in 2008-09, is still feeling its way – and looking for a suitable doctrine that will allow it the freedom of action it requires, in the face of an enemy that wields terror from behind the cover of a civilian population, without getting into trouble again with the international community.

Our Indian hosts, whose professional world is deeply connected to the security establishment in their country, don’t understand this agonizing. “You don’t drink tea with terrorists,” said one of them, who sounded as though he had extensive experience in the field. “If mistakes occur in which innocent people are hurt, that is regrettable, but it should not divert one from the main point: Not only terrorists have human rights – so do the victims.”

The distinctions Israeli makes between those who fit the definition of a terrorist and those who don’t sound wishy-washy to the Indians. For them, anyone who transfers money to terrorists is a terrorist, period. And it makes no difference if the person has doffed his uniform and laid down his arms after taking part in combat – that should not protect him from being attacked.

In February 2012, Tal Yehoshua-Koren, the wife of an Israeli diplomat in Delhi, was wounded when a motorcyclist attached a bomb to the car in which she was traveling. That was the most serious attack in a series of such incidents initiated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, apparently with the help of Hezbollah, against Israelis across Asia, in revenge for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

The motorcyclist got away, but the Indian authorities identified the other members of the network, who were Iranian citizens, on the basis of visa requests. Tehran, asked for clarifications by the Indian government, stated that it had no knowledge of these people. Only one person is standing trial for the incident: an Indian Shi’ite, a journalist, who is accused of abetting the terror network. He is free on bail and the trial is proceeding lethargically.

To Israel’s chagrin, the attack did not bring about a change in Delhi’s relations with Tehran. When the Indians talk about Islamist terror, what disturbs them is the Sunnis of Al-Qaida, not the Shi’ites dispatched by Iran. India was a key client of Iranian oil, and a further lifting of the international sanctions on Iran will open the way for the renewed expansion of trade between the two countries. In another few days, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will visit Delhi. The institute that hosted the Israeli delegation will also host Zarif for a friendly meeting.

Chinese, U.S. ties

The gap between the two countries with regard to Iran is a mirror image of their respective approaches to China. The Indians regard China as a significant rival, huge and sophisticated, whose plans are hard to predict but are certainly not benign. Israel, for its part, discerns mainly commercial possibilities in China.

If China is an elephant in the room, so is the United States. American foreign policy, with the bewilderment it projects and its extreme fluctuations in recent years, is viewed with puzzlement and skepticism by both India and Israel.

India’s concerns, however, focus primarily on Pakistan. The Indians perceive Pakistan as a far more severe threat to them than Iran poses to Israel. The combination of a failed state, a rise in the influence of extreme Islam and a large nuclear arsenal is enough to make the Indians lose sleep. Still, it’s hard to ignore the impression that deliberate demonization is being brandished along with a one-dimensional approach, and that, like in Israel, this serves to keep the security threat alive, allowing India’s military to increase its procurement demands and freeing politicians from the need to deal with other pressing problems.

For a few years, during the middle of the last decade, India was portrayed in the international media as a kind of great global hope: a huge, ambitious and promising market that was awakening from its slumber and producing a new, young middle class that was ready to leap forward, and absorb knowledge, technology and consumer products from the West.

That optimism has since waned, initially because of the world economic crisis of 2008 and afterward because of domestic problems. Growth in India slowed, the bureaucracy remained ponderous, and the political arena encountered protracted paralysis. The worldwide coverage of a series of gang rapes sent some Western tourists elsewhere.

In my short visit, I found a preponderance of pessimism and gloom, tempered somewhat by expectation of change. The fate of 1.2 billion people hangs in the balance. The change might come from the general election in May, in which, according to forecasts, the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party, will defeat the ruling National Congress Party.

Even on a lightning visit, Delhi is a surprising mix for someone encountering the city for the first time. Opposite the office building housing the research institute, people are scavenging in garbage cans. The impression made by the beauty of the grand monuments is erased within minutes by a depressing encounter with the girls who knock on the windows of the car and beg at every major intersection, with infants in tow who look groggy, as though they are under the influence of anesthetics.

On Sunday morning, a group of wild monkeys tranquilly crosses the road in the quarter where the foreign embassies are situated. The hotels look like fortified luxurious bastions from the period of the British Empire, and every foreigner is surrounded by a waiters and other staff members.

The shelves of a store in the airport are buckling under a load of books which have one central theme: What is wrong with India, and why can’t it extricate itself from its situation? The visitor feels as if he is moving back and forth between the Jabaliya refugee camp and the Palace of Versailles. Israeli columnists like to spout the bizarre cliché that the Israeli prime minister has the hardest job in the world. As always, it’s all relative.

India Defense Expo.Credit: AP

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