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Israel’s Love Affair With India

From drones to missiles to small arms, Israel’s military-industrial complex has found a desirable partner in the subcontinent

by
Sameer Patil
May 07, 2024
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Jan. 15, 2018

MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Jan. 15, 2018

MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, on Jan. 10, India’s Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar flagged off a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) called the Drishti-10 Starliner. The drone is an Indian-made version of Israel’s Elbit Systems’ cutting-edge Hermes-900 UAV. It reportedly boasts over 70% local components. Produced by Adani Defence and Aerospace, an Indian defense manufacturer, the drone will be inducted in the Indian navy later this year, significantly boosting the country’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities across the Indian Ocean region. The Indian army has also placed orders for these drones, likely for deployment along the disputed Himalayan border with China, where tensions have simmered for over three years.

The production of the Drishti-10 Starliner is symbolic of the thriving India-Israel defense cooperation, which in recent years has become one of the most significant relationships for New Delhi as it deftly maneuvers the turbulent Middle East and also tackles the China threat on its borders. Driven by the shared threat perception of being surrounded by hostile neighbors and the challenge of terrorism, both countries have emerged as strong partners, particularly in the defense trade.

However, things weren’t always this way.

After attaining independence in 1947, New Delhi professed a policy of nonalignment, maintained close ties with the Arab states, and showcased a pro-Palestinian stance. Domestically, policymakers were wary of angering the substantial Muslim minority population, which at that time held strong views on the partition of Palestine. Honoring their sentiments was crucial for policymakers, considering a significant portion of the Muslim population had deliberately chosen to remain in India after the partition of British India and the formation of Pakistan, a nation established explicitly for Muslims. So, while it formally recognized Israel in 1950, India shunned the Jewish state for much of the Cold War period.

Driven by the post-Cold War era dynamics, the turnaround came in 1992 when the two countries decided to end their estrangement and establish formal diplomatic ties. Since then, the two democracies have forged a robust and multifaceted partnership encompassing defense trade, science and tech cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges.

Israel’s defense industry is currently establishing fruitful partnerships with India’s private sector to boost domestic production.

The India-Israel relationship received a significant boost in 1999 when India launched an offensive to repel Pakistani troops that had occupied territories in the Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir. Faced with the arduous task of dislodging the Pakistani soldiers, the situation proved demanding for the Indian defense forces. Israel stepped in by supplying mortars, ammunition, and laser-guided missiles, which added precision and lethality to the Indian military campaign. The Israeli assistance remained unwavering despite significant pressure from Western countries to delay shipment of defense supplies.

Guided by this experience of Israel’s dependability, India keenly looked to harness Israel’s advanced defense-industrial know-how to expand and upgrade its military capabilities. Consequently, defense and security cooperation emerged as an anchor of the bilateral relationship.

The significance of defense for bilateral ties was underlined during the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India in 2003—the first by an Israeli prime minister. His delegation comprised representatives of flagship Israeli defense companies such as Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI), Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israeli Military Industries, Elta, and Elbit Systems. Notably, this cooperation predated the India-U.S. defense cooperation, which occurred much later.

Much of the defense equipment in the Indian inventory remains of Soviet and Russian origin. Over the last decade and a half, however, New Delhi has been consciously diversifying its defense supplies and Israel is among the top arms exporters to India, along with the United States and France. In 2000, India and Israel signed their first defense deal for the purchase of the Barak-1 surface-to-air missile system. As per the available figures from the SIPRI Arms Transfers database, India’s purchases from Israel totaled $4.2 billion between 2001-21. Others estimate that India buys $2 billion worth of weapons from Israel annually.

Major Israeli defense equipment purchased by India consists of the Phalcon airborne early warning and control system (installed on Russian Il-76 aircraft), an array of UAV systems including Heron, Searcher II, and Harop, as well as surface-to-air missile systems such as Spyder and Barak, air-to-surface missiles such as Popeye I and II, Spike antitank guided missiles and a host of sensor systems.

This defense trade is mutually beneficial.

Israeli equipment has boosted India’s ability to gather intelligence, conduct surveillance, and carry out reconnaissance operations. This has proven especially valuable along the disputed borders with Pakistan and China. For instance, the Indian army operates MALE Heron drones for extended surveillance with real-time imagery along the “line of actual control,” where Indian and Chinese militaries have been locked in a protracted border stand-off since 2020.

Israeli equipment has also proved helpful in the Kashmir Valley, where for several decades, the Indian army has tackled an insurgency aided by neighboring Pakistan. Here, the Indian army deploys Israeli sensors, Heron drones, hand-held thermal imaging devices, and night vision imaging equipment to check militant infiltration from Pakistan on the line of control and in counter-insurgency operations.

India has also utilized Israeli arms for its offensive campaigns. In February 2019, it used the Spice 2000 guided bombs in an aerial raid targeting a terrorist training camp at Balakot in Pakistan. Though New Delhi described the raid as “preemptive,” it occurred in the wake of a deadly suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Kashmir that claimed the lives of over 40 troopers.

Indian special forces use Israeli assault rifles such as Tavor, Galil, Negev machine guns, and the B-300 man-portable antitank weapon system. This diverse arsenal grants the special forces unmatched tactical flexibility and pinpoint accuracy in their missions. The Indian army commandos used the Tavor and Galil rifles during the 2016 cross-border strike targeting terrorist training and launch pad facilities in a territory occupied by Pakistan.

However, some Israeli defense companies haven’t had a smooth ride in India. For instance, the very first joint deal to purchase the Barak-1 missile system came under scrutiny after investigations by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation concluded in 2006 that IAI and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems had paid kickbacks to defense officials. Consequently, they were blacklisted from conducting any further business in India. It was only in 2018 that the two companies were removed from the list. In another instance, in 2019, Elbit Systems emerged as the frontrunner to supply towed artillery systems to the Indian army. However, following lengthy contract negotiations, the Indian government put the brakes on the deal and shifted its focus toward exploring domestic alternatives.

These challenges notwithstanding, India has emerged as the largest purchaser of Israeli weapons in the last decade—accounting for 46% of Israel’s weapons exports—surpassing even the United States. This defense trade furnishes Israel’s defense industry with a secure and highly valued avenue for access to a sizable market. With the United States blocking Israeli arms sales to China in the late 1990s and early 2000s due to worries about China’s growing military power, the Indian market has become a critical outlet for Israel’s defense industry. Moreover, the Indian arms purchases also provide funding for Israel’s defense research and development.

Israel’s active engagement in the Indian government’s Make in India initiative underscores the significance they place on the Indian market. The Make in India initiative, unveiled in 2014 by the Indian government, aims to bolster the country’s defense industry by encouraging the private sector and corporations to play a more active role in expanding domestic defense production.

At present, Indian-Israeli ventures are complementary to the supply of U.S. munitions and other larger defense equipment to Israel. However, in the future, India can also replace U.S. supplies for a wide variety of systems as well as ordinary munitions.

Following a similar model of major American aerospace companies, Israel’s defense industry is currently establishing fruitful partnerships with India’s private sector to boost domestic production. Israeli defense giants IAI, Elbit Systems, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems have partnered with Indian companies Bharat Forge, Tech Mahindra, Adani Defence and Aerospace, and Tata Advanced Systems to manufacture advanced sub-systems and homeland security systems. As mentioned at the beginning, Adani Defence and Aerospace (a subsidiary of the Adani Group with revenues of $32 billion) and Elbit Systems have joined hands to produce UAVs such as the Drishti-10 Starliner, a variant of the Hermes-900 drone. Reportedly, this is the only facility outside Israel to manufacture this drone system. Reports suggest that more than 20 of the Hermes-900 drones, produced by this Adani-Elbit joint venture, have been exported to Israel for military use.

High-tech weapons systems are not the only domain where Indian and Israeli companies have collaborated. Defense cooperation also extends to small arms and ammunition production. In 2017, Israel Weapon Industries and India’s Punj Lloyd commenced production of the Tavor carbine, X95 assault rifle, Galil sniper rifle, and Negev light machine gun at a facility on the outskirts of the central Indian city of Gwalior. The JV primarily sought to tap the immediate requirement of the Indian defense and paramilitary forces as well as the state law enforcement agencies for assault rifles.

In 2020, the Adani Group picked up the facility to expand its defense portfolio. In February 2024, the group launched an additional facility for assault rifle manufacturing in the northern Indian city of Kanpur. One of the units in this facility is slated to produce around a dozen types of guns with Elbit Systems. At this point, it is unclear if some of this production will be utilized for exports, including exports back to Israel—which is seeking to regain control over its defense supply chains.

Besides co-production, both sides have also explored the co-development of defense technologies. The successful development of the Barak-8 air and missile defense system by IAI and India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation stands as a major achievement of this collaboration. This system, offered as land and maritime variants, can shoot down targets as far as 150 kilometers, making it a formidable air defense system. In another project, IAI is teaming up with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to convert previously used Boeing-767 civilian aircraft into aerial refueling tankers for the Indian air force.

Israeli companies have demonstrated a keen ability to identify and leverage the niche technological expertise offered by their Indian counterparts. For instance, Tonbo Imaging, an Indian company specializing in electro-optics systems, has for many years supplied this advanced technology for IAI and Rafael’s precision-guided bombs.

The two sides intend to deepen collaboration in the co-development sphere through a sub-working group on defense-industrial cooperation that will facilitate the transfer of technology to India and sharing of industrial resources. In 2022, during the visit of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, India and Israel signed the India-Israel Vision on Defence Cooperation agreement to put together a comprehensive 10-year road map to identify new areas of defense technology collaboration.

With both countries’ leaders committed to working together more closely, the India-Israel relationship is expected to remain on the upward trajectory. For Prime Minister Modi, Israel is an important partner and he has devoted significant time and effort in cultivating a personal connection with Israeli leaders, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017.

Israel is an important partner for India to fulfill the latter’s quest for tech autonomy and building an advanced domestic defense-industrial base. India’s recent efforts to boost its metallurgical and aerospace production capabilities have already yielded rich dividends for the national space sector. Its aerospace industrial base is already an established part of the global supply chains of American defense giants like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sikorsky. India is hoping to replicate this relationship with Israeli companies.

The bilateral focus at present is to cater to the domestic market. However, India has also been beefing up its defense exports catering to markets in Africa and Southeast Asia: They are expected to touch $3 billion this year. The Israeli market, too, figures in this broader calculation as evidenced by the export of India-produced Hermes-900 drones for use by the Israeli military.

At present, such Indian-Israeli ventures are expected to be complementary to the supply of U.S. munitions and other larger defense equipment to Israel. However, in the future, once India builds adequate capacity and satisfies domestic demand, it can also replace U.S. supplies for a wide variety of technologically advanced systems as well as ordinary munitions.

In the broader view, robust India-Israel defense ties may also bode well for the United States, as India emerges as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism. Therefore, stronger Indian military capabilities powered by American and Israeli defense equipment align with larger U.S. objectives in the region. Indian American diaspora associations along with Jewish American associations in the U.S. have repeatedly advocated for the formation of a tech triangle between the three countries. U.S. officials have explored this too: In 2020, a Trump administration official disclosed that the three countries had agreed on potential cooperation in 5G technology.

Besides defense trade, there have also been greater military exchanges, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism engagement between the two sides in the security domain. Beyond security, India and Israel have forged closer cooperation in information technology, agriculture, renewable energy, and pharmaceuticals.

Certain analysts have posited that India’s efforts to strengthen its relationship with Israel may have come at the cost of its support for Palestine, an issue that has assumed renewed significance in the backdrop of the deadly Hamas raid on Israel on Oct. 7 last year and the subsequent Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

As a victim of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan for several decades, India understands the consequences of terrorism not being tackled head-on. Therefore, it unequivocally condemned the Hamas terrorist attack and expressed its solidarity with Israel. At the same time, New Delhi has maintained that Israel has an international obligation to observe humanitarian law and underlined that the only viable path out of the current quagmire is a “two-state solution.” In addition, it has delivered humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. The Indian position is also reflective of the domestic divisions that have arisen vis-à-vis the Israel-Hamas hostilities: Some groups have defended Israel’s right to self-defense against terrorism, whereas some have castigated the Israeli response for causing humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip.

Even as it responds to the unfolding situation in the Middle East, New Delhi is keenly looking forward to the end of hostilities and return of stability to the region. The goals at the core of this approach are protecting India’s economic interests in the region, securing energy supplies and cementing connectivity. New Delhi is also seeking to benefit from the emerging realignments in the region, as manifested by the Abraham Accords of 2020.

Expanded ties with Israel constitute a critical element of this Indian power play. This remains a priority for India, even as it has advanced ties with other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Within this framework, a stronger defense partnership, deeper connectivity linkages, and joint technology development are the pillars of a radically expanded relationship with Israel.

In the defense domain, the gradual shift from arms sales to tech innovation signifies the mutual aspiration to create technologically advanced militaries that can fight together. Toward this, regular joint military exercises between India and Israel would be beneficial. This will enable both militaries to develop interoperability to counter common threats.

On the connectivity front, in September 2023 in New Delhi, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, India, United States, Saudi Arabia, and the European Union announced the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC) that seeks to connect India, all the way to Europe through the Middle East. Israel is a critical part of this corridor with Haifa’s port, one of the largest ports in the eastern Mediterranean serving as a transshipment hub for Europe and developing a seamless supply chain. India’s Adani Group is involved in the development of this port. The IMEEC will therefore potentially provide opportunities for more Indian corporations to expand their presence in the Middle East.

India and Israel have already joined hands for joint innovation in agriculture, water and digital health, through the India-Israel Global Innovation Challenge. This partnership can expand to shape a startup corridor or bridge that brings together their respective national innovation communities. In addition, India can offer the scale for the development and application of technologies developed by Israel.

Greater involvement of their militaries, innovation ecosystems and corporations will undoubtedly help in maintaining the upward trajectory of this partnership between the two democracies as they work to protect each other’s interests in a turbulent region.

Sameer Patil is Senior Fellow, Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. He is also Deputy Director of ORF’s Mumbai Centre.

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