Deepening India-Israel Defence Engagement

India-Israel relations are strengthening in various sectors like agriculture, trade, tourism and technology since establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992. However, defence ties has emerged as the the central pillar of their growing bilateral engagement. The recently concluded Blue Flag-17 multi-national military exercise in Israel and participation of Indian air force in it for the first time witnessed that India is not only expanding the contour and spectrum of its military diplomacy but also stepping up and broadening its military ties with Israel in a qualitative and visible manner.

Blue Flag-17 biannual multilateral exercise which was aimed at enhancing military cooperation among participant nations was held in Uvda Air Force Base in southern Israel from 2-16 November 2017. Apart from Israel and India, this exercise witnessed the participation of six other countries like United States, Greece, Poland, France, Germany and Italy. Highlighting the importance of the event, Eurasia Times noted that this exercise “will help the countries to share their experience and expertise especially needed in war times”.

45 member contingent of Indian Air Force (IAF), including 16 Garud commandos, participated with C-130J special operations aircraft in the military drill. Indian team was comprised of personnel from various combat units of Indian Air Force and led by Group Captain Maluk Singh VSM. This is the first time that IAF is operating with Israeli Air Force in a ‘multilateral exercise setting’ since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. Actually this is India’s first engagement in multilateral military war games in Israel. Such military engagement helps armed forces to understand each others world view in the changing security scenario. This also witnessed India’s keenness to enhance the capability of its Special Forces for various purposes including cross-border counter terrorist operations.

Highlighting the importance of this exercise from India’s point of view, official statement of Indian Ministry of Defence stated that “the exercise will provide a platform for sharing of knowledge, combat experience and in improving operational capability of the participating nations”. It further stated that “Exercise Blue Flag gives opportunity to the IAF to share and learn best practices with some of the best professionals from other Air Forces”.

According to a media report, Indian contingent which included 16 Garud Commandos has also worked closely with Israel’s select Special Forces. It was reported that Indian Garud commandos will be training for a week each with Israeli Air Force’s elite units 5101 (Shaldag Commando Unit) and Unit 669 (Airborne Rescue And Evacuation Unit). This dimension of the military drill is strategically very important. Press Trust of India correspondent in Israel quoted an Indian officer leading the Garud commandos as saying that “the Israelis are more battle-hardened as they have more experience in cross border operation and we can learn from their experience”. The officer further elaborated that “we would look to learn and share with them the procedures followed in mutual interoperability, counter-terrorist operations, method of inducting and training people and try and compare to see if a course correction is required at our end”. This witnessed the deepening of one to one military level engagement between India and Israel.

However, India-Israel defence engagement is not a new phenomenon. Evolution of India-Israel defence ties has witnessed a consistent path of upward trajectory since the beginning. Even before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Israel had quickly extended military assistance to India during conflict with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. India-Israel Defence relations has gained positive momentum after the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1992. Kargil conflict of 1999 proved to be a mile stone in bilateral defence ties, when Israel on a very short call supplied much needed military hardware and equipment to India during war with Pakistan. Since then relations between armed forces and defence establishment of both the countries has taken the dynamic institutional shape with enhanced two way interaction. In an attempt to explore possibilities in defence sector, frequent visits of defence officials and Chief of Armed Forces of both the states has become a regular phenomenon.

During UPA I and II regime led by Prime Minister Manmohan singh, defence cooperation between the two countries witnessed no change. However, India maintained low profile and veil of secrecy in its defence ties with Israel until recently. In the year 2009, the military business between both the countries was estimated at approximately 9 billion US dollars which ranged from spy and armed drones to sophisticated missile defence and radar systems.

India-Israeli defence relations under NDA II regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi are witnessing a speedy and visible progress. Modi regime seems committed to transform the scope of existing mutually beneficial bilateral defence relationship. India-Israel defence relationship has come ‘out of the closet’ under the current dispensation in New Delhi. Previously there has been a tendency in India to keep the military and defence relationship with Israel under the veil of secrecy due to global, regional and domestic sensitivities. Now under the NDA II regime, the mindset of hesitation and secrecy in discussing defence partnership in public domain has been shunned away.

Both the countries have developed deep military relations as India emerged as a huge market for Israeli arms and military technologies. There emerged a mutuality of interest between India and Israel in cementing defence relationship as both need each other. India’s quest for its military modernisation has converged with the Isreali search for new markets in Asia. Israel needs Indian defence market for supporting its military-industrial complex. At present, Israel is under pressure to step up its defence sales to support its economy. From India’s point of view, Israel has been liberal enough and always expressed its willingness to share technology and knowledge in defence sector than most of the other countries.

Considering the national security as a paramount concern, Modi dispensation seems committed to address all hurdles and bottlenecks in defence procurement process. That is why it has decided to clear the backlog of defence orders to boost India’s fire power. Decision to purchase 8356 Spike anti-tank guided missile and 321 launchers in October 2014 from Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defence Systems will facilitate the development of indigenous military-industrial complex. India also approved the purchase of 10 missile-armed Heron TP drones from Israel in September 2015. Acquisition of these drones will enhance India’s cross border strike capability with minimal risk. In March 2016, Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave its nod to various pending defence deals with Israel. This included the deals for Spice-2000 bombs and laser designation pods. India also approved the purchase of two Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), four aerostat radars and medium-range surface-to-air missile system (MR-SAM) for the army from Israel.

India-Israel defence relationships are not just confined to buyer-seller framework but also include joint development and co-production. Modi regime has raised the Foreign Direct Investment cap in defence sector from 26 per cent to 49 per cent with the aim of boosting indigenous defence production and to make India self-reliant in the sector. Focussing on the indigenisation and robust private sector participation, Defence Procurement Procedure, 2016 has introduced a new acquisition category called Indigenous Design Development and Manufacturing (IDDM). PM Modi has clearly stated that “the country should work towards increasing domestic procurement from 40 percent to 70 percent in next five years. And that is why defence is at the heart of our Make in India programme”. India has invited Israel to become a partner in ‘Make in India’ initiative in defence sector. Israel has also expressed its desire to share cutting-edge weapon technologies with India in order to take lead from other competitors in the Indian defence market.

Successful testing of the jointly developed Long Range-Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) Barak-8 warship missile system in 2014 and 2015 witnessed a milestone in bilateral cooperation in joint development of advanced weapon system by India’s DRDO and Israel’s IAI. Ship-Borne LR-SAM Barak-8 development project was sanctioned in 2005 to arm Indian warships. Ground based version of Medium Range-SAM development project was sanctioned in 2009 for Indian Air Force’s air defence squadrons in order ‘to plug the existing gaps in air defence coverage of the country’. India has also cleared a project between DRDO and IAI to develop MR-SAM systems for the Army in February 2017. SAM systems are to be produced in bulk by defence Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL). First LR-SAM Barak-8 naval air defence system was handed over to the Indian Navy in August 2017. The plan is to equip all Indian frontline warships, destroyers and stealth frigates with BARAK-8 system, which is all weather effective defence shield against incoming enemy fighter, drone, helicopters, missiles and other munitions.

Israeli sale of Spike missiles to India would be followed by transfer of technology to defence PSU Bharat Dynamics Limited for large-scale manufacture and production. At present India’s DRDO is engaged in various co-development projects with Israeli defence firms such as Elbit, Elisra, IAI and many others.

Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and Kalyani group of India have reached an understanding to set up a joint venture unit named ‘Kalyani Rafael Advanced Systems’ to build and develop high end technologies and weapon systems in India. It was reported that this venture will work on providing various technologies and systems ranging from Missile Technology and Remote Weapon Systems to Advanced Armour Solutions. A plant for manufacturing Spike anti-tank guided Missile was opened in August 2017 in Hyderabad under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. The plant will produce weapons not only for Indian Army but also for other countries for export purposes. Kalyani stated that “this is the first such advanced missile system under Make in India”.

Another agreement to establish joint venture in defence sector was announced between Rafael Advanced Defense Systems of Israel and Reliance Defense Limited of India at Defexpo India 2016 exhibition in Goa. Joint statement stated that they were setting up a joint venture in India to produce air-to-air missiles, air defence systems and surveillance balloons or aerostat for Indian military over the next ten years. Rafael-Reliance strategic partnership could give a big thrust in the field of indigenous production and development of high precision and state-of-the-art weapon systems in India. However, initiative is yet to take off.

Giving a further boost to India-Israel defence engagement, Punj Lloyd of India and Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) has opened its first private small arms manufacturing plant In May 2017 at Malanpur in Madhya Pradesh in India. The joint venture known as Punj Lloyd Raksha System will manufacture weapons like X95 assault rifle, Galil sniper, Tavor assault rifle, Negev light machine gun and Ace assault rifle.

During the 12th meeting of the high powered joint working group in July 2016, both the countries discussed joint research and development projects in fields like high-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), micro-satellite surveillance systems, armoured vehicles and different types of missiles and precision-guided munitions.

India-Israel cooperation in defence sector regarding co-development and co-production could become a catalyst in promoting a vibrant and dynamic indigenous defence-industrial eco-system in India. Aerospace and defence are the thrust areas in ‘Make in India’ initiative. Israel’s defence engagement in joint research and development with public and private sector in India will be beneficial not only in creating aerospace and defence ecosystem but also building a skilled work force.

During PM Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017, the joint statement stated that future development in defence sphere should focus on joint development of defence products including transfer of technology from Israel which will give a boost to the Make in India initiative. Some Indian and Israeli companies agreed for joint development in the defence sector and to bid jointly to win contracts during a meeting of the CEOs in the presence of PM Modi. Bharat Forge and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) decided to expand their joint venture in the field of selected air defence systems. Dynamatic Technologies, IAI and Elcom agreed for industrial cooperation and local production of Unmanned Aerial Systems in India. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to India in January 2018 could give a further dynamic push to joint development and joint production in defence sector between both the states.

Conglomeration of systemic, national and individual factors suggests a positive development of India-Israel defence relationship. These include India’s thrust for its military modernisation and Israel’s willingness to participate in ‘Make in India’ at the national level, reported positive chemistry between the current leadership of both the countries at individual level and positive US perception of emerging India-Israel defence ties at structural level.

Nonetheless, there are also limits to bourgeoning defence cooperation between India and Israel at national and structural level. Israel has to face tough competition with foreign vendors in lucrative Indian defence market and learning from the past experience India would not be ready to put all the eggs in one basket. United States, France, Russia and others are also looking desperately to enter Indian defence market. In her quest for maintaining strategic autonomy in defence procurement and defence acquisition, India would prefer to maintain diversification of defence equipment and technology sources. Defence experts have also expressed their concerns regarding India’s recent growing ‘over dependence’ on one country for defence related high end technologies. Transparency related issues could be another factor in India-Israel defence ties. Issues related to delays or lack of progress in India-Israel joint ventures and reported lack of transfer of technology by Israeli companies has also raised eye brows of many in the Indian strategic community. At the sub-system level, any Israeli defence engagement with Pakistan and/or China and India’s deep engagement with Iran could have its bearing on the positive development of India-Israel defence ties.

Despite these limitations at national and sub-system level, India-Israel defence partnership is moving swiftly in a positive direction and expected to grow further in the near future. India-Israel cooperation in defence field shall increase in coming days. Not only India has displayed its keenness in Israeli military platform and high end technology but also Israeli companies are also looking forward for Indian private and public partners for joint venture in defence research and development. However, there is a robust need to channelize the full potential that existed in the field of India-Israel defence cooperation where ‘sky is the limit’.

India’s offset obligation rules provide opportunity for Israeli defence companies to invest in defence sector in India. Israel’s active participation in ‘Make in India’ initiative in the defence sector would be a step forward in developing indigenous military-industrial base in India. Joint development and joint production in military field could pave the way forward for the export of various military platforms to third countries for mutual benefit. Commenting on the impact of India-Israel defence ties, distinguished scientist at DRDO, W. Selvamurthy stated that “India could use Israel as a spring board as it looks to produce indigenous defence products that can be sold in the global market”. India-Israel defence engagement in the long run could play a vital role in the development of indigenous cutting-edge technology with public-private synergy that will further give a boost to the expansion of military-industrial complex in the country.

About the Author
Anoop Kumar Gupta completed his doctoral studies on Soviet Policy towards Arab-Israel Conflict at JNU, New Delhi, India. He has also been a visiting researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel during 2002-03. He authored a brief monograph on "Changing Nature of India's Israel Policy" which is available at