It was only in the mid-1990s that New Delhi, realising how injurious it was proving to national interest, jettisoned its hoary, unbalanced, West Asia policy and brought its close, covert and longstanding ties with Tel Aviv, including in the military sphere, out of the closet. Today India and Israel are frontline fighters against international terrorism and provide the much needed democratic ballast in the extended region — Bosphorus to the North China Sea — otherwise bereft of human rights and representative government.
In an anarchic world of sovereign states plagued by violence, the glue that binds like-minded countries together is shared threat perceptions and mutual help in the security field. In return for India’s moderating its political stance on the Palestinian issue, Israel shares Intelligence, trains special operations commando and, most importantly, sells top-of-the-line military equipment. As a producer of critical high technology military hardware and electronics, Israel is something of a godsend to the Indian Armed Forces who can now readily acquire tested cutting edge equipment. Inside of a decade, India has supplanted China as the largest buyer of military goods, with the average annual purchases worth $1-2 billion being something of a lifeline to the Israeli defence industry.
As a means of cantilevering the bilateral relationship to a higher plane, Tel Aviv has suggested jointly financing and developing, among other things, a full coverage anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system able to intercept all enemy missiles fired from any quarter. An adviser to the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, estimated that were the two countries to invest just one per cent of their gross domestic product in the development of a comprehensive ABM system over $12 billion will be available for the project yearly. Tel Aviv’s interest in partnering India in such projects is straight forward enough. It will spread the financial burden and risk and free it from the shackles the US veto on exports that accepting American money entails.
However, the trouble with a relationship with Israel predicated on India’s off-taking a whole host of military goods and services and engaging in ambitious joint ventures is that, unfortunately, it is all one way with India doing little else but forking out the funds. Over time there is not only the danger of the Indian defence budget reverting to an austerity line thereby drying up arms sales and the relationship, but of India-Israel ties being reduced to a buyer-seller relationship. As a recipe for warm and enduring relations, it falls short.
It is a danger that Tel Aviv seems to be mindful of — the reason why it has tried very hard to accommodate the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Bangalore, for instance, by promising to offtake its Lakshya remotely piloted vehicle for use as target drones by the IDF and the Israeli Air Force. Alas, there are not many things the 39-odd Indian ordnance factories with antiquated tools and low productivity norms and the myriad R&D laboratories of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which promise more than they deliver, produce of international quality that Israel would want to buy. Is there a way around out? There is.
India has the territorial space Israel lacks and can provide the Indian landmass, air space and the naval facilities for training the lead fighting elements of the IDF, Israeli air force and navy. More meaningfully, India and Israel can mesh their defence industrial capacities to maximise mutual benefit. This will call for schemes of cross-investments and of coupling the defence science and technology research, design and development centres as also the manufacturing organisations in the two countries.
Israel could contemplate transferring the more basic product lines comprising low to medium technology, like small arms and ammunition, armoured personnel carriers and short range artillery, to India to meet the needs of both the countries and for the international market. Long range guns, self-propelled artillery, etc, could be added to this list. The idea is to wed Indian weapons platforms, perhaps upgraded with Israeli assistance, to high-technology Israeli avionics, fire-control systems, and sophisticated missiles and other weapons in order to obtain high quality armaments and military-use systems. The Indian Light Combat Aircraft, for example, is a natural fit for Israeli aviation technologies.
Further, India’s requirement of some 3,000 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) will be only partially met by the import of the Russian T-90s and the upgrading of the older T-72s. Israel may be obliged by the terms of US military aid to opt for the American Abrams MBT. In this situation, it makes sense for Israel, instead of abandoning its proven Merkava MBT, to transfer its production designs and the manufacturing processes and wherewithal to the Indian complex in Avadi, as a means of providing the Merkava to both the Indian and Israeli armies to meet their replenishment/ replacement needs of their armoured forces and selling this MBT with an excellent operational reputation and track record to interested customers world-wide.
Such imaginative policies linking military, industrial and high technology sectors will firm up India-Israel friendship by creating hefty stakes in each other’s security. Logically, grand programmes like the Israeli proposal to jointly build an all-aspect ABM system or a matching invitation New Delhi can make to Israel to join in an equally high value project producing, say, nuclear-powered submarines, will be easier to realise if defence industrial collaboration at the lower levels of technology and political-military investment, is first established and momentum generated.
Links in the conventional military field could lead, moreover, to cooperating in the field of nuclear armaments — a possibility that could be opened up by India’s offering its nuclear testing site to Israel to validate its weapons designs. The absence of its own test grounds reportedly led Tel Aviv to conduct a one-off fission test in South Africa in 1979.
Strong India-Israel ties could bookend an unstable region rife with Islamic discontent and turmoil and make for stability in Asia. The only obstacle may be the terminal “self-doubt” afflicting the Indian government and political class, which policy attribute translates into an absence of strategic foresight and vision.
(The writer is research professor, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi)