It was not too long ago when Israeli diplomats considered India a hardship posting. Those souls braving the pokey confines of the Israeli Consulate on Peddar Road in Mumbai, protected 24x7 by a contingent of armed Maharashtra Police, were incentivised by higher emoluments and career advancement. This was before diplomatic relations were “normalised” and the representation scaled up in 1992 to the ambassadorial level by the Narasimha Rao government.
In the new millennium, Delhi is a much sought after station. Ambassador Alon Ushpiz, for instance, went from Delhi to an appointment as Adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in one fine leap and lost no time in urging his boss to establish a separate bureau in the Israeli Foreign Office to deal with India, which Netanyahu duly did two months back.
India and Israel have a uniquely close relationship. It dates back to trade in King Solomon’s time, and the first Jews seeking refuge in India after the razing of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.
The departing British colonial power did its standard ‘cut and run’ in the Palestine Mandate territory in 1948, as it had done in the subcontinent the previous year, leaving behind the bloody partition debris for the people to build on.
Now, India seeks from Israel advanced military technology, agricultural techniques to turn deserts into orchards, and inspiration to be another ‘startup nation’ in cutting edge technology. The two countries, in other words, have experienced sort of Kondratieff Cycles in civilisational ups and downs, before settling into a steady state. In fact, in describing the prospective partnership between the two countries it is common to hear Israeli defence ministry officials use a phrase popularised by the Deputy National Security Adviser, retired Major General Amos Gilad – “the sky is the limit.”
Competing For Israel’s Attention
Other than arid land agriculture, Israel’s advanced military technology sector is at the heart of that country’s success story. This latter has three aspects – two of them that have negatively impacted India and may prevent really robust Indo-Israeli cooperation in the future.
Over 80 percent of the Israeli military research and development is funded by the United States, which endows Washington with a veto over what and to whom Tel Aviv can sell/transfer technology.
More often than seems good for India’s relations with either the U.S. or Israel, deals have been nixed owing to caps on technology imposed by Washington. Thus, while Israel was eager to give its Elbit 2052 computer at the core of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar India is building for its combat aircraft fleet (to enable fighter-bombers to switch mid-flight from air-to-ground to air-to-air roles), the U.S. disallowed it, permitting the use of only the inferior 2032 version.
The second aspect is that the two best customers for Israeli military products are India and China. The Israeli defence industry cannot do without either because exports to these two countries virtually constitute all of its foreign sales. In 2015, for instance, of the Israeli arms exports worth $5.7 billion, China bought military hardware valued at $3.4, and India at $2.3 billion. But, here’s the rub. Beijing has looked askance at Israel helping India produce the ‘Swordfish’ variant of its Green Pines long range radar that can be used by the Indian ballistic missile defence system to detect incoming Chinese missiles 800 kilometres away.
Thus, Tel Aviv has always to reconcile U.S. and Chinese concerns with Indian demands, and India loses out.
The other bit of grit that has got into an otherwise well-oiled Indo-Israeli arms supply machine is the rising discontent evident in the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) with the Indian buys from Israel, which other than avionics, have been mostly in the missile field. Currently three large procurement/joint development projects are underway – the $2.5 billion deal for 50-70 kilometre medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) for the Indian Air Force and Navy, the $1.5 billion contract to produce the 15 kilometre short range SAM to replace the Barak system on Indian warships, and the $2.75 billion buy of the Spyder quick-reaction mobile air defence missile for army deployment on the border with Pakistan.
DRDO’s peeve is two-fold. One, that instead of the government and the armed services asking for variants of the indigenous 25 kilometre range and effective Akash surface-to-air missile already with the military to cover the medium and short ranges and giving a fillip to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ programme, money is needlessly expended on Israeli items. And, secondly, that in the joint development projects, India and DRDO agencies are stuck with the low-end work of making canisters and launchers, not the front end high-value stuff, such as warhead, guidance, and fire-control systems. The proprietary knowledge – design innovation and system algorithm – is retained by Israel, when rightly it should be Indian intellectual property because India has paid for its development.
The suspicion is that Israeli defence R&D is being funded by India without the latter being given any ownership rights.
These difficult issues need to be sorted out, lest the relationship begins to sour at the Indian end. Modi should ask for an equal share to India of the intellectual property rights created by high-value Israeli military technology development subsidised by Delhi. Whether he will do so remains to be seen, but the resolution of such contentious issues will brighten the prospects for meaningful future collaboration.
Modi could also, more productively, learn from Netanyahu how the Israeli government long ago transformed the socialist setup of its state-owned defence industry into a world class, cost-efficient, technology creator, with a view to replicating the Israeli model in India.
But the Prime Minister seems more intent on connecting with the section of the Israeli population that has India links at a planned mass reception of Modi in Tel Aviv (like those staged in Wembley Stadium in London, Madison Square Garden in New York, the Allphones Arena in, and more. It will not do much for India, but it is good theatre.
Bharat Karnad is Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, and author most recently of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.