By Harsh Kumar Upadhayay
As India and Israel celebrate the 31st anniversary of their diplomatic relations, it is time to recall and reassess just how much progress has been made and how much more needs to be done to forge a strong Indo-Israel strategic partnership. Having completed three decades of diplomatic relations, during the course of which both countries have had extensive engagements on issues pertaining to defence, security, intelligence, counter-terrorism as well as agriculture and water cooperation, one can expect that in the fourth decade, this relationship will acquire greater strategic significance at bilateral and mini-lateral levels.
Overview of defence cooperation
A brief analysis of the ongoing bilateral cooperation between these two countries presents a very rosy picture of the relationship that began on 29 January 1992. In a very short span of just three decades, Indo-Israeli relations have traversed from non-relation to strategic partnership. In the brief period of the last thirty years, Israel has become a major supplier of defence equipment to India, standing second to Russia on a few occasions. As per the data furnished by the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) Israel was ahead of Russia in the year 2013–2014 and 2015–2016, in terms of signing defence contracts with India.
In the decade spanning from the year 2000 to 2010, the bilateral defence trade was estimated to be around $10 billion. India was the top recipient of Israeli arms, accounting for 42% of the total Israeli arms export as revealed in a report titled “Trends in International Arms Transfer” published by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Having successfully collaborated in high-profile areas to develop Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MRSAM) and Long-Range Surface to Air Missile (LRSAM) named Barak-8, both countries have also ventured into the domain of space. For instance, in 2008, India successfully launched an Israeli reconnaissance satellite TecSAR-1 in exchange for an X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) installed on India’s RISAT-2 (Radar Imaging Satellite with all-weather capability). Very recently in 2018, both countries signed an agreement to collaborate in Electric Propulsion Systems (EPS) areas for small satellites, atomic clocks and GEO-LEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit-Low Earth Orbit) Optical Link. Thus, from sales of weapons to technology transfer and from research and development to Joint Ventures (JVs), both countries have swiftly upgraded their relationship to strategic levels.
Few minor challenges
Despite the extensive cooperation taking place in the domain of defence and security, many analysts and scholars in the past have suspected this bilateral security cooperation to be transactional, where India is the buyer and Israel is the seller. At the heart of such a “buyer-seller relationship” analogy is the argument that the ongoing Indo-Israeli defence relationship is a tactical or ad hoc association. Others have suspected this so-called “strategic partnership” to be mostly one-way in terms of benefits derived, as New Delhi keeps forking out the funds and is left to perform only the back-end work with much lesser access to high-value and front-end work like dealing with target seeker and propulsion tech on MRSAM and LRSAM projects.
Another factor that might dent the alleged “buyer-seller dynamics” is India’s quest for being self-reliant (Atma-nirbhar) in defence production. Of late India’s arms imports dwindled by 21% between 2012–16 and 2017–21, which can be attributed to its growing emphasis on cultivating a vibrant military-industrial ecosystem comprising research, domestic design & development, and defence equipment manufacturing by the public and private sector companies. To promote indigenisation, the Government of India (GoI), in a series of notifications, has restricted the import of multiple defence systems and subsystems since December 2021. These import restrictions apply to a range of weapon systems such as corvettes, airborne early warning systems, tank engines, radars, towed artillery guns, short-range surface-to-air missiles, cruise missiles, and offshore patrol vessels. These import caps on the purchase of defence equipment can also result in the stagnation of Indo-Israeli defence cooperation.
So, what is the way forward for both these countries to enhance their defence partnership as it enters the fourth decade of their relationship? Needless to say, the governments across both countries have played a significant role in shaping the foundations of dynamic defence cooperation, through military diplomacy, joint collaborations, and multiple exchange programmes. Very recently in October 2021, both countries agreed to form a task force to identify new areas of cooperation and formulate a comprehensive 10-year plan in order to advance the prospects of future bilateral defence cooperation. Of late, multiple companies from India and Israel are collaborating to manufacture critical components as well as defence platforms. For instance: Mahindra Defence and Israel’s Aeronautics signed an MOU to partner on the production of Naval Shipborne UAV systems which can be launched and recovered from Indian warships. Likewise, Cyient Solutions and Israel-based BlueBird Aero Systems entered into a joint venture to offer UAV systems to Indian defence, security, and police forces. Cyient will utilize BlueBird’s technology and manufacturing know-how to design, manufacture, and assemble advanced UAV systems at its production facilities in Hyderabad.
What further needs to be done is to create a conducive business environment for the private players from both countries enabling them to collaborate and flourish by producing defence platforms having export potential. The intermeshing of Indian and Israeli defence industries where India provides the main market along with the investment for the development of high-tech armaments and military technology, and Israel provides for its design and development skills along with competencies for the manufacture of conventional military bulk goods, will fully meet the demands of both the countries. Besides meeting the defence requirements, such an intermeshed arrangement will also serve as a potential hub for the export of military equipment to various countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Apart from the bilateral defence cooperation, the recent creation of I2U2 and the participation of India and Israel as members of this newly formed quadrilateral grouping is an indication that this partnership is now graduating from bilateral to mini-lateral levels. Although this is a geoeconomic grouping primarily designed for economic cooperation, it has the potential to serve as a geopolitical platform for India and Israel to exert geostrategic influence. For Israel, this grouping presents an opportunity to exhibit its improved diplomatic relations with an Arab counterpart coupled with opportunities to further negate the calls of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement by gaining market for its companies in a quadrilateral framework. For India, this grouping helps expand its strategic manoeuvrability in West Asia. Earlier, as a consequence of Arab-Israel rivalry, India couldn’t imagine and enter into a common cooperative venture with Israelis and Arabs on board. India had to walk a delicate geopolitical tightrope to balance its relationship with Arabs and the Israelis.
The fourth decade of this bilateral relationship thus brings an equal set of challenges and opportunities to deal with, capitalizing upon which, the bilateral relations between the two will continue to grow and prosper in the decades to come.
Harsh Kumar Upadhayay is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow (SRF) at the Indian Institute of Technology- Madras, Chennai.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.