On Feb. 25, 11 days after a suicide bomber from the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad killed upwards of 40 soldiers in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Mirage 2000 fighter jets crossed into Pakistani airspace, marking the Indian military’s first incursion into its northwestern neighbor since 1971. The jets dropped an Israeli-made precision-guided bomb called the SPICE 2000—an acronym for “Smart, Precise, Impact, and Cost-Effective”—striking at a supposed terrorist camp in Balakot, inside of undisputed Pakistani territory.
If the weapons were Israeli, so was the tactic: Since the start of Syria’s civil war, Israel has launched hundreds of strikes on targets inside the country, often from Lebanese or international airspace. Although it is difficult to know with absolute certainty, early reports indicated that India originally planned on striking from Pakistani Kashmir (which India does not consider to be part of Pakistan) but that heavy winds forced the planes to cross the international border. India’s strike last month, therefore, was just the sort of surgical, non-balance-shifting attack that Israel has mastered in its own neighborhood, using Israeli weapons to boot.
None of this went unnoticed. Journalist Robert Fisk claimed that Israel is “playing a big role” in escalating tensions, and while there’s no factual support for this statement—India and Pakistan’s conflict has nothing to do with Israel, the Indian military is stocked with high-end weapons from the U.S., France, and Russia, and Pakistan is a leading purchaser of high-end Chinese arms. Still, the Indian raid shows the tactical and technological edge that buyers of Israeli weapons believe they’re getting, an advantage that, in India’s case, outweighs any moral or political hazards of purchasing weapons from the Jewish state.
The SPICE 2000 is a case in point. It’s a highly sophisticated bomb, seemingly tailor-made for India’s own strategic predicament. Pakistani-based and supported militant groups strike inside of Indian-controlled territory with relative frequency, but Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal limits India’s options in how it can respond. In a decades-long standoff in which conventional deterrence and total inaction aren’t options, reconnaissance and precision weaponry are especially important—India buys surveillance equipment from Israel, too, including the Phalcon airborne warning and control system and the Heron drone, both of which Leiden University professor Nicolas Blarel, a leading expert in the Israel-India defense relationship, says were used in the most recent strike.
As Blarel explains, the SPICE 2000 “operates on pre-recorded GPS coordinates,” while the weapon’s “advanced identification and processing abilities can reportedly help overcome jamming efforts.” In any prospective war with Pakistan, Indian warplanes would likely be targeting enemy positions high in the Himalayas and might be under explicit instructions not to cross the Line of Control, the border dividing India and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The difficulty of hitting enemy positions in the mountains, along with India’s aversion to setting off a tripwire for an even larger conflict, makes it imperative for Delhi to be able to strike at specific, previously identified targets from long distances. In a shooting war, the bombs can provide close-air support for ground forces; in a tense almost-war, like the one currently taking place between India and Pakistan, the weapon allows India to attack at a limited scale from long distance. Blarel says that India bought 250 SPICE 2000s from Israel’s Rafael Systems in 2016.
But there’s something even deeper than immediate security needs driving India’s purchases of Israeli weaponry. Whatever else one can say about the IDF’s battlefield conduct, Israel has the technology and the willingness to act with relative freedom and confidence in confronting threats to the country, whether through bombing nuclear reactors, taking out Hamas weapons caches in Sudan, or wiping out dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in a matter of hours. These accomplishments have made the IDF the envy of many nations locked in their own long-term combustible conflicts. This is just as true for nations like India, which do not enjoy Israel’s relative freedom to act: Because of its rival’s nuclear arsenal, India must be comparatively more constrained. The 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba killed over 160 people, resulted in no significant military reprisals. Pakistan harbors any number of terrorist groups with designs on Indian civilian and government targets, but the costs of breaking the long-standing balance of power between the two nuclear-armed countries are horrifying enough to stay a major Indian response—even the 2001 attack on India’s parliament building didn’t spark a full-scale war. In this tense situation, purchasing precise Israeli weaponry is seen as an optimal investment.
Israeli military actions are so often a source of global outrage that it’s easy to forget that they can be cause for jealousy, too. Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, says that some Indian leaders look to Israel with a sense of “operational envy … coming from a real frustration in India over the last two decades that Pakistan has used these terrorist groups instrumentally but India can’t retaliate the way it would with any other country because of the nuclear weapons.” The Israelis aren’t a demanding ally, either: Historically, Israel hasn’t placed any political or economic conditions on arms sales to Delhi, and it’s never demanded India acknowledge the defense or intelligence relationship in any way. “They don’t ask questions,” Madan says of Israel’s ties with India. “They’re considered reliable.”
Still, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has succeeded in acknowledging its close relations with Israel while upgrading ties with the Palestinian Authority through a series of a high-level visits. “They’ve essentially said we’re going to follow a two-state solution but we’re also going to make this Israeli relationship more public,” says Madan.
For India, Israeli arms purchases are a solution to a longstanding problem. Israeli weapons give India a technological advantage over its likeliest battlefield foe, and also allow for a readily available means of responding to security threats in a contained and effective fashion without kicking off a nuclear escalation spiral. Maybe this is wishful thinking—after all, the region is only ever one nuclear-escalation spiral away from a nightmare. But so far, it’s worked: Despite the first Indian strike inside of Pakistan for the first time in 48 years and the brief capture of an Indian fighter pilot, the nuclear missiles have stayed in their silos.
The global arms industry isn’t risk free, and it should reassure no one that Israeli weapons could have been used in one of the opening salvos in an eventual nuclear confrontation. But India has modeled a relationship with Israel and the Palestinians based on pragmatism and national interest. In its high-level ties, India seems to view Israel as a useful but inevitably normal country—a refreshing development.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.