Potential of India-Israel Defense Partnership in Drone Technology

In a recent speech to Indian armed forces posted in Leh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reasserted India’s determination to the Self-Reliance goal when he said: “after getting inspired by you, the resolve of a self-reliant India becomes even more powerful.” The Self-Reliant India mission is India’s answer to expansionist forces’ economic and psychological warfare and it’s a reminder that India is not only a market of 1.3 billion consumers but home to creative minds and millions of producers too.

The post-COVID world will certainly be different, many new opportunities will emerge. While recovering from the economic damages and developing the national reconstruction plans, every country will have to redraw its partnership strategies. India-Israel relations have a good track record and Israel should see the Self-Reliant India mission, one of the biggest drives of India, as an opportunity to pursue higher aims together. Amid the pandemic, through regular telephonic conversations between the leaders, and with frequent interactions among diplomatic teams (via webinar/digital conferences), the way both sides have sustained the momentum in this partnership is encouraging for the future.

Defense and Security partnership is a crucial strategic asset of India-Israel relations. In the post-COVID phase, the focus of this partnership should be more on future threats, where we still need to work on a war footing approach. We must remember that before experiencing the Corona pandemic, the bio-warfare was a mere emerging global trend for us, which we were exploring, analyzing, and discussing with great curiosity. The pandemic came as an assault, at a time when a majority of us were unprepared, unaware, and unwarned and its experiences have taught us that the nature of warfare is changing more drastically than we used to perceive and anticipate.

In the Joint Doctrine of Indian Armed Forces released in 2017, it is mentioned that “the character of future wars is likely to be ambiguous, uncertain, short, swift, lethal, intense, precise, non-linear, unrestricted, unpredictable and hybrid.” Within three years with the rapid innovations in drones, we are witnessing that future unfolding before our eyes. After cyber and bio attacks, the lethal Drone Wars are the inevitable future and it is not a mere coincidence that China is leading in this front too. According to some reports, within a decade (from 2008 to 2018) China emerged as the third-largest exporter of multi-role strikes capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), next after to Israel and the USA.

Advanced technologies when exploited by totalitarian regimes, often end up becoming a threat to the whole humanity, and who can understand it more deeply than India and Israel? The proliferation of Chinese drones in the Middle East, South East Asia, and African markets is a rising concern. Some of these trends have alarmed India because gradually Pakistan (which is often called a safe harbor of terrorist elements) is becoming a top Chinese drone buyer. In 2018, China and Pakistan reached an agreement to co-produce 48 Wing Loong II long-endurance drones. These developments should alert Israel as well because China is Iran’s top trading partner too. From 2016, both sides are negotiating a 25-year strategic deal, which is about to be finalized soon, as per Javad Zarif’s recent tweet. According to some news reports, there are speculations that China has added military elements in this strategic deal.

Given the fast-changing threat scenario, strengthening indigenous drone capabilities is one of the top priorities of the Indian government. Several indigenous unmanned aerial and combat aerial vehicle projects of DRDO (defense R&D department of India) are already underway and they are in the different stages of completion i.e. Project AURA (Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft, a provisional name given to the future combat stealth drone Ghatak), Rustom (Medium Altitude Long Endurance drone) which is available in three variants- Rustom I, Rustom H and Rustom II, now called TAPAS-BH-201 (Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon). Another unmanned target aircraft- LAKSHYA (which inducted into the Indian Air Force, Indian Navy and Indian Army in 2000, 2001, and 2003 respectively) and multi-mission drones such as Nishant.

Some encouraging developments are going on in the Micro/Mini UAVs category too. Some of India’s popular mini/micro UAVs are Imperial Eagle, Black Kite, Golden Hawk, and Pushpak, which have been designed and developed by Aeronautical Development Establishment along with National Aerospace Laboratories.

India is among the top drone importing nations. Under the Self-Reliance drive, the Ministry of Defense is preparing a list of all the highly imported defense items. This domain offers huge scope for technology transfer and foreign investment. Israel is one of the most trusted defense partners and top drone exporter of India. India’s military drone fleet is largely made up of Israel Aerospace Industries’ Searchers, Herons, and Harops. In the last few years, some efforts to initiate joint R&D and UAV manufacturing units between Indian and Israeli public-private sector have been initiated.

In 2018, India’s Mahindra Defense and Israeli company Aeronautics Ltd signed a partnership deal for the production of Naval Shipborne UAVs. Under this partnership, the maritime version of Orbiter 4 will be developed for the Indian Navy. In the same year, India’s Adani Defence & Aerospace and Israel based Elbit Systems inaugurated a joint drone manufacturing facility called Adani-Elbit UAV complex, in Hyderabad, India. According to their official statement “the 50,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art facility would be the first UAV manufacturing facility in India and the first outside Israel to manufacture the Hermes 900 Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV.” This joint manufacturing unit will soon start catering to the global markets.

During DefExpo 2020 (a flagship biennial event of India’s Ministry of Defence) Indian companies Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Dynamatic Technologies Ltd (DTL) signed an MoU with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for marketing, manufacturing, and selling of IAI’s drones to potential Indian customers. HAL is a long-time partner (since 2004) of IAI and as per the press release “this partnership would be the first in the country to manufacture IAI designed UAVs like Short Range Tactical class having long endurance.”

India and Israel both have vibrant startup ecosystems with an emerging interest in drone technologies. There are several enthusiastic startups/MSMEs in India, which can develop best in class unmanned aerial systems. One such startup IdeaForge, in collaboration with the research wing of India’s defense organization, developed a light-weight, autonomous mini drone called Netra (which is also called Netra quadcopter) for the surveillance and reconnaissance operations. This year, IdeaForge also signed a pact with Larsen & Toubro Ltd (a major engineering manufacturing and construction company of India) for developing integrated high tech drone and anti-drone solutions.

Israeli drone capabilities are world known. Apart from having a full-scale drone industry, Israel hosts an exciting drone startup ecosystem too. According to Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry, there are “over 50 Israeli startups and companies in Israel that provide 165 UAV Units to customers worldwide.” More than 50 percent of these startups provide Unmanned Aerial Systems’ component, embedded software/hardware, and external elements, 24 percent of them offer UAVs platforms, and 17 percent startups are involved in anti-drone technologies, which can be an interesting area for Startup collaborations.

Sometimes India’s calm posture on hot trends gives this impression as if the country is not concerned about its position in the race for future weaponry. But in the last six years, India has changed many such assumptions of the past. Before testing Anti Satellite weapon (Mission Shakti), India seemed lagging in the race of ASAT capabilities too. On March 27, 2019, the magnifying success of Mission Shakti placed India on the list of top four countries (next after to US, Russia, and China) that possess such capabilities. One can say that today India has the right political will and pro-active approach toward future challenges.

From startup collaboration to export-oriented joint ventures to R&D and future threat response units, the potential of India-Israel partnership in drone technology is enormous.

When extremist and expansionist forces start finding convergence of interests, the responsible countries of the world cannot afford to remain an observer. Drone and anti-drone technologies are going to dominate the future, and we must embrace those now.

About the Author
Devsena Mishra promotes advanced technologies, startup ecosystems and Indian government’s business and technology related initiatives like Digital India, Make in India and Startup India etc. through her portals, articles, videos, and books.
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