21 October 2014

An Israeli Shot In India’s Arm


As New Delhi goes arms shopping, Israeli weapons systems are piling up in the checkout cart. Will such an over-reliance backfire someday, asks Mathew Samuel

Safety net India has already sent feelers about acquiring the Iron Dome technology. Photo: AP

A strategic shift is already visible in India’s relations with Israel. For the first time since Independence, a government in power at the Centre has uttered not a single word of commiseration with the Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflagration. Even if India’s sympathy has been seen as deceptive and mealy-mouthed — and it often has, given our clandestine military and obvious interstatal civil connections with Israel — India’s avowed policy in the Southern Levant has always been pro-Palestinian. Palestine is the only international conflict that was seen as too ethically significant to be tied down by the command strictures of non-alignment, and the global diplomatic policy vis-a-vis Israel of Fernheit, or “remote awareness”, was carried forward right up to the end of UPA-2.

The Narendra Modi government’s silence on the current upsurge in the Hamās-Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) hostilities — including a one-sided ceasefire offer by Israel and its obdurate rejection by Hamās — is all the more deafening given the historical non-negotiability of India’s pro-Palestine policy. On the surface, India’s reticence seems to be non-partisan: It could be argued — and it is being argued — that the Indian government has not come out in open support of Israel, either. What is interesting, though, is the quietly frenetic revalidation of Israel in the corridors of power, both by the Modi regime in New Delhi and in Binyamin Netanyahu’s Memshelet Yisrael in Jerusalem.

The conflict between a foreign-relations custom and the exigencies of practicality, which punched an increasingly larger hole through the Congress’ Nehruvian equanimity as the years went by, didn’t end even with the targeting of Jewishry during 26/11 in Mumbai, when Chabad House — the ‘court’ of a tightly-knit Orthodox Jewish community — was attacked and its respected rebbe and his wife butchered. It was a provocation from Pakistani Islamists that sent the Congress’atmashakti into a tailspin — but, eventually, didn’t lead to an evident redefinition of its policy towards Israel. Israel offered to share with India the Mossad’s famedtachbūlōt (strategems, ruses, tricks), but, for the most part, kept its own counsel, despite that the outrage was, in its eyes, extreme: The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim is one of Israel’s most beloved Eastern European Orthodox denominations, because the Chabad Hasids came back — literally — from the dead after having been wiped out almost entirely during the Holocaust.

Except that Israel’s diffidence and the Congress’ refusal to publicly change its policy were tachbūlōt.

Even as India banned Israel Military Industries (IMI, or Taas) for 10 years in 2012 over bribery allegations, which followed the replacement of the venerable Uzi with Belgian firearms in late 2008 by the Special Protection Group — which protects the prime minister, former prime ministers and their families — the Indian Army’s paracommandos were being rapidly but quietly outfitted with Micro-Uzis.

And there’s the rub: The IMI, an 80-year-old company with strikingly deep influence worldwide (because of its US franchise, the Harrisburg, Pasadena- based IWI [Israel Weapons Industries] US, Inc.), is pretty much back in favour because the response from the Indian Army to its Micro-Uzi has been remarkably supportive (given that a little more than a half-decade ago, the very same army had agreed that the Uzi wasn’t cutting it). In 2008, the year the original Uzi was taken off the Indian security forces’ inventory, IMI’s turnover was $650 million, of which 60 percent, or $390 million, was from exports. It was one of IMI’s highest turnover fiscals, which essentially means that its exports to India, then its second-largest customer, were affected probably marginally, if at all.

If anything, the year that IMI’s Uzi tanked, Indian arms purchases from Israel accounted for roughly a third, or $1.71 billion, of Israel’s $5.2 billion in arms exports. That year, India bought about $3.3 billion worth of Israeli arms.

According to an Aviation Week report (5 August 2013), in FY2013 (2012), “Countries in Asia continue to be the Israeli defence industries’ leading market with 50 percent of sales, or $3.7 billion, concentrated there. India is the leading customer.” This included, but was not limited to, the $1.4 billion Barak-8 naval air and missile defence system contract with the Israel Aerospace Industries [IAI].”

According to a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz (Sisters in arms: The burgeoning defence trade between Israel and India, 22 February), “India is now the No. 1 export target of Israel’s defence industries. Both India and Israel avoid revealing details about the scale and nature of their security trade… India’s share of that is probably between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. And the potential for growth exists.”

Our latest information has it that following the midair downing of almost 90 percent of Hamās’ rockets by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system during the latest Israel-Palestine crisis, a feeler has been put out to the IAI and Rafael through the offices of the Israeli government to examine whether or not a system similar to Iron Dome, but massively upscaled, could be designed for India. It is difficult. “But,” says a source in Israel, “the question is not if Israel could design and perhaps supply through ToT [transfer of technology] an Iron Dome — or whatever dome — to India: The question is if Israel can train military technicians to oversee the missile tracking and antimissile launching in such a dome.”

Contrary to common perception, the Iron Dome is not automated: Its antimissile rockets are finally activated by very young IDF soldiers trained to distinguish between Hamās’ rockets and small aircraft, and to make decisions that can have serious international consequences.

Two Asian nations are actively seeking some form of security intervention through customised Iron Domes — Singapore, which is currently being outfitted (but whose active operational prognosis is a zealously-kept secret); and India, whose Ministry of Defence, under the Congress, first began to send out feelers — very cautiously and ready to beat it, in the tried-and-tested Indian way — in late 2013.

While the US is also considering asking Israel for design aid in developing its own aerial active-defence canopy, it is not hamstrung by having nothing to offer the Israelis. If not for virtual gifts of non-returnable cash from the US, Israel would not have an Iron Dome. (There are eight pillars of the Iron Dome in operation.) India, on the other hand, really does have nothing to offer the Israelis except hard cash and technological fealty.

The problem is that Israel, which has been haemorrhaging money into the IDF for decades, could do with Indian money, scads of which is free-floating around various defence manufactories around the world. India has, in fact, been so chronically disorganised and dilatory in its arms purchases that its security superstructure is widely considered as lacking coherence. It is a patchwork of obsolete, scabby weaponry and state-of-the-art poultices — which is why the feelers for a vastly-upscaled version of the Iron Dome left Israel feeling a bit bewildered. How would Israel, which has an antimissile missile canopy covering just 20,770 sq km — divided into four relatively flat regions: the coastal plain, the central hills, the Jordan Rift Valley, and the Negev Desert — design a defence fractal-upscale for India, which has an area of 3,287,590 sq km, or 158 times the size of Israel, and with a topography that includes anything that nature can throw at it?

The Iron Dome comprises a mix of transport erector launchers and multiple rocket launchers, all truck-towed and very mobile. The antimissile rockets are designed to counter very short-range rockets (5- 70 km), such as the Hamās uses predominantly (although it has been reported to have very occasionally used more sophisticated long range, Tel Aviv-targeted rockets supplied by Syria), and 155mm shells. It is a quick-deployment, high-camouflage system that can only be taken out by satellite-aided targeting — and neither Hamās nor Israel’s ring of Arab States have anything remotely approaching such precision and rapidity.

But, says our source, Israel considers India a topographic and weather (even microclimate) nightmare — and Pakistan, against whom an Indian Iron Dome would be deployed, has satellite facilities. In spades. The daddy of Iron Domes for India is a dream — a designing and financial dream for Israel, and a strategic dream for India. But, so far, it’s a dream.

But, with the bottomless pit of money in the promissory giftbox, it’s a dream worth pursuing. And here is how the dream has played out.

In August 2012, the Indian government banned six weapons companies, among them IMI. (The others were Singapore Technologies Kinetics [STK], one of the four major companies of the Singapore government- owned ST Engineering; Rheinmetall Air Defence AG; Corporation Defence, Russia; TS Kisan & Co; and RK Machine Tools — the last two, Indian companies.)

The foreign companies lodged protests against the Central Bureau of Investigation’s advisory to the government to blacklist them. STK took the matter to court; and the IMI hung on to its coattails. STK, being a part of a statal venture (that had a turnover, in 2011, of $6 billion), found its way into governmental favour. It is also said to be involved in Singapore’s Iron Dome project — and so, sources say, the Israelis tagged along. In any case, there had been little apparent cause to blacklist IMI.

In 2013, in fact, after the Indian government announced in February that year that $7-8 billion might be spent on small arms through imports and local production, the Indian Army purchased about 2,372 older Tavor TAR-21s from IMI (including 2,000 from the original order of 3,072 — the order signed in 2002 and worth $17.7 million — and 372 for the Special Frontier Force in 2005). This was exclusive of the roughly 500 Tavor TAR-21s and 35 Galat’z (Galil 7.62 sniper rifles) bought for $3.3 million in December 2010 for the MARCOS, the Indian Navy’s special operations unit. In 2011, the Central Reserve Police Force received 12,000 X95/Micro Tavors.

In 2013, the Indian Army also bought about 5,400 X95/Micro Tavors with bayonet flash-protectors. The army Tavors in use now are massively modified and patched together with non-Israeli subunits: locally-manufactured, hard-plastic, single-piece stocks; and Turkish Makina ve Kimya Endüstrisi Kurumu (MKEK, or Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation) T-40 40mm single-shot underbarrel grenade launchers (UBGLs).

Some of the mods were forced by Israel’s inability to deliver the X95 with UBGLs. But nor was it loath to permit mods, or make a point of sticking to full-arms-and- projectiles copyright. (The 5.56mm ammunition was to have been supplied by STK. One of the reasons for the iffy availability to the Indian forces of a rolling supply of 5.56mm and 7.62mm calibre small-arms projectiles is that STK was forced out of the picture for a while. India cannot manufacture them to save its life.) In some ways, the Israeli arms manufactories are probably easier to get along with than the traditional big Waffenproduzenten such as the European consortia and the US browbeaters.

In 2012, the year IMI was banned, its US franchise, IWI, did a global uncover of the Uzi® Pro, the newest 9mm Uzi version, at DefExpo India. With testosterone-raising military modcons such as Picatinny rails, ergonomic butt, built-in foldable assault handle and pistol-type magazine release button, quick fitting suppressor, full auto and single shot, and adjustable shoulder stock with mounted cheek rest, it was the weapon that India thought it should have had — but it was too late a fervent wish: Orders had been placed for earlier Uzi versions, part-deliveries made.

Now, though, the Uzi® Pro is again up for grabs. This is the version that could find its way to the Indian security services.

TEHELKA learns that the Indian government has begun the process of identifying land in Madhya Pradesh and Pune for an Uzi manufacturing plant. The target for the Uzi is a monster-size one: 1.13 million army personnel, 1.3 million paramilitary, and 1.15 million reservists. Not all of them will get anywhere close to an Uzi. But even if a third of them do, Israel has it made.

Israel has also offered its help in battling insurgencies in India, particularly with the Maoists — with, in particular, ‘intelligent’, semiautonomous drones. Sources told us that India has sent positive word (though not on-paper MOUs yet) for another lot of 100 drones over the next two or three years.

These UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) will be distributed among Kashmir, the Northeastern states, the Maoism-affected regions, and the coastal regions — including the waters of the 20-km-wide Coco Channel between North Andaman and the Burma-owned Coco Islands, which the Burmese government at Naypyitaw has more or less signed over to Beijing. Even as both the army and air force presence is being ramped up at Diglipur in the North Andaman, it has so far been almost impossible to patrol the Coco Channel. The Heron UAVs, with their ceiling of 30,000 ft, are reportedly fit to report from a height difficult for them to be knocked out of without rocketry — which, since Burma is not in conflict with India (and vice versa), would be an act of war, or at least of extreme imprudence.

Not that Israeli drones in India are unprecedented. Israel has steadily been supplying drones to India, but nowhere close to these numbers. In December 2013, the Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had approved about $300 million for 15 Heron (Machatz-1) drones from Israel. They were meant to build up to 40-plus Herons, each costing $10 million, with the rest for human-guidance systems and upgrades.

In September 2013, the Indian military had relocated some of its earlier Herons to the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control between India and China. The even earlier batch of Israeli Searcher Mark-II UAVs were found to have flight-endurance issues and high-altitude performance problems. The Indian Air Force, therefore, pushed hard to get the drones and their creaking support systems replaced ASAP.

Not surprisingly, this development came just a day after a government snit over the leakage of a report by Shyam Saran, the then chair of the National Security Advisory Board, which said baldly that China had, without fanfare, taken over almost 640 sq km of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh.

As much as Pakistan is — if we cut through the noise about Modi’s proactive and benign quartier diplomatie — the government’s bête noire, the BJP has always considered the 1962 Sino-Indian War an unnecessary loss, courtesy Jawaharlal Nehru. It would give a lot to replay history — and a recent loss of a giant chunk to China is galling beyond imagination. A number of Israel’s UAVs will make their way to the vast, echoing and nearly unpatrollable Sino-Indian theatre.

Modi has been working harder to improve his ties with Israel than at getting the Barack Obama administration to lift its ban on him. As erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had developed a keenly friendly relationship with Israel, promoting Israel’s involvement with grassroots ventures from drip irrigation in agriculture to water recycling. Indeed, while Modi was building his bridges with Israel, the Congress government at the Centre set about quietly and increasingly involving, over the years, Mossad’s expertise at surveillance at the Republic Day Parade — which is, more than just a national-pride jamboree, India’s biggest defence exhibition.

Mossad’s tachbūlōt — full circle.

Forty days before Narendra Modi took office, the incumbent foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, had announced that Israel was a “reliable partner”, and that the Congress government quietly acknowledged it. On a three-day visit to Israel starting 3 April as chair of the Indo-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, Swaraj had said that the Congress government had not broken “the continuity in the foreign policy” vis-à-vis Israel and that there was “a lot of warmth in the relationship between the two countries…”

And then some cocky wisenhemier asked her why, during the Kandahar crisis (which has left the BJP wearing a patina of sheepishness forevermore), India had not effected an “Entebbe kind of rescue”, Swaraj had been forced to back down with the assurance that “the two incidents cannot be seen in the same context”.

Swaraj is rarely at such a loss for composure that she missed out telling the smartaleck that the contexts had been, indeed, entirely different. Her backtracking had not gone down particularly well with the BJP brass.

Now, of course, it has every opportunity to repair that missed opportunity — with Israeli help.

Keeping a fine Balance 

India has always enjoyed good relations with Palestine. In fact, the ties go back to the pre-Independence days. However, the past two decades have witnessed India embark on a strategic partnership with Israel after nearly four decades of diplomatic estrangement. For most of its pre- and post-Independence history, India saw the Israel- Palestine conflict through an ideological prism, pursued a foreign policy antagonistic towards the Jewish State, and refused to grant Israel full diplomatic recognition until 1992, the last major non-Muslim country to do so.

Anti-Israeli stance

New Delhi had maintained an unfriendly posture towards Israel since Independence. Several factors, including the fear of alienating its large Muslim population, Cold War politics, a desire to counter Pakistan’s clout in the Muslim world, and a need to garner Arab support for its position over the Kashmir issue compelled New Delhi to pursue an exclusively pro-Arab and thus pro-Palestinian foreign policy for more than 40 years.

Change in Indian policy

After more than four decades of hostility, a host of developments, especially the end of the Cold War, forced New Delhi to change its stance towards Israel. India’s cherished policy of nonalignment lost its validity following the end of the Cold War and with it, New Delhi’s ideological justification for its staunchly pro-Palestinian and anti- Israeli position. Additionally, the 1991 Madrid Peace Process prompted India to conclude that if the Arab world and the Palestine Liberation Organisation were now willing to negotiate with Israel, New Delhi had no reason to maintain status quo. India also realised that its support for the Palestinians brought nothing for New Delhi with regard to the Kashmir issue or any other dispute involving Pakistan for that matter.

A New Beginning

India finally extended full diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1992. Ties between the two countries have flourished since then. The formation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) neglected the sentiments of Indian Muslims and Pakistan’s decision to block India from joining the OIC is considered to be the cause for this diplomatic shift. According to an Israeli foreign ministry report, India is the most pro-Israel nation, ahead of even the US. The two natural allies have made counter-terrorism and military cooperation a part of their bilateral relations. New Delhi has benefited from Israel’s expertise in counter-terrorism training and border security, while Israel has emerged as one of India’s most important sources of sophisticated military equipment and weapons systems. Bilateral economic cooperation as well as collaboration in the fields of space research, trade, science and technology and education are thriving.

Major Diplomatic Initiatives

In 1997, Israel President Ezer Weizman became the first head of the Jewish State to visit India. He met Indian President Shankar Dayal Sharma, Vice-President KR Narayanan and Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. Weizman negotiated the first weapons deal between the two countries — India bought Barak-1, a vertically-launched surface -to- air missile that has the ability to intercept anti- ship missiles such as the Harpoon.

In 2000, Jaswant Singh became the first Indian foreign minister to visit Israel. Following the trip, the two countries set up a joint anti-terror commission. They also promised to intensify cooperation in fields such as counter-terrorism and information technology.

In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was in power.

New Delhi has continued to share cordial ties with Israel without diluting its ties with the Palestinians. Hence, it has managed to deftly pursue both parties in tandem.

Bilateral Trade to Scale New Peaks

Bilateral trade between India and Israel jumped from $2 billion in 2001 to $4.1 billion in 2009 and $4.43 billion in 2012. However, in 2013, the trade volume marginally decreased to $4.39 billion. India continues to be a major focus of Israel as a future trading partner.

According to reliable sources, Israel is planning more commercial activities with India and Tel Aviv is eyeing the trade volume to reach $10 billion in the next five years.

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