24 May 2015

Watch Out, Pakistan: Israel to Sell India Mobile Missiles

May 22, 2015
Israel and India on the verge of signing a new “mega” defense deal, that would include Israel helping India develop a new mobile missile system.

On Thursday the Times of India reported, citing unnamed officials within India’s Ministry of Defense, that India and Israel have “now virtually sealed the joint development of a medium-range surface-to-air missile system (MRSAM) for the Indian Army.”

The first tranche of the deal will be worth over 9,000 crore (roughly $1.67 billion), however, Indian officials that the Times of India spoke with said that more missiles could be bought at a later date. "More orders might later follow since the Army's air defence capabilities are relatively weak," the official was quoted as saying. Earlier, an Indian army official said that Delhi could purchase over $6 billion worth of the medium-range surface-to-air missiles and related systems from Israel by the end of the deal.

The MRSAMs, which will be on mobile launchers, will serve as India’s replacement for the Russian-built Kvadrat and OSA-AKM systems that India purchased in the 1970s and 1980s. India has been searching the open market for replacements for some years now, and previously rejected other offers because they didn’t contain sufficient technology transfer clauses, Defense News reported in February of this year. 

The deal will take place between the Defense Research Development Organization, which is India’s defense technology research arm, and Israeli Aerospace Industries, Israel’s government-owned aerospace and aviation manufacturer. The missiles will be built in India by PSU Bharat Dynamics’ defense division, which produces some of India’s most highly touted missiles such as the Agni.

The same three companies already collaborate in building surface-to-air missiles for India’s Air Force and Navy. Those prior deals are worth some 13,000 crore (roughly $2.15 billion). However, whereas the Air Force and Navy SAMs have an interception range of about 70 kilometers, the army missiles will only have a range of 50 km. Both the naval and air force SAM programs were hit with significant delays, and neither the naval or air versions of the missiles are operational yet.

The Indian Army’s acquisition of MRSAM could spell trouble for Pakistan;Defense News earlier reported that “The [Indian] Army wants to use the MRSAM to defend mechanized formations operating in the plains and desert regions of the country.”

Those regions would include India’s border with Pakistan, suggesting that the missiles would be used to protect Indian forces during an invasion of Pakistan (or in defense against a Pakistani invasion). They would therefore be useful in helping India execute its “Cold Start” doctrine, which envisions Delhi launching quick, limited incursions into Pakistan in response to Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks on India. Islamabad has suggested it could response to such attacks using tactical nuclear weapons, which the MRSAM could help protect Indian troops from. 

The impending deal is further evidence of the growing Indian-Israeli strategic partnership. According to the Times of India article, India and Israel have inked some $10 billion worth of arms sales and projects over the last fifteen years, “which range from spy and armed drones to sophisticated missile and radar systems.”

Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, was last in India back in February, where he offered to sell India Israel’s prized Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. It is also believed that Ya’alon helped negotiate the MRSAM deal during that trip.

India and Israel's interests significantly overlap, which should help propel their strategic partnership forward in the coming decades. Not only are both democracies in troubled regions, but they also are threatened by Islamic extremism and terrorism.

That being said, India has always handled its relationship with Israel cautiously, in an effort to avoid angering Arab Muslim states. In fact, the two states didn’t even establish diplomatic ties until 1992. In addition, India’s economic growth has made it increasingly reliant on Arab oil, which will serve as an obstacle in furthering Indo-Israel ties in the future. Finally, India has a close relationship with Iran, which Israel considers an existential threat.

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