Manmohan Singh is held largely responsible for bringing ‘economic revolution’ in India in the early 90s. Now, it appears his government is on the verge of bringing ‘diplomatic and strategic revolution.’
The events of the last few months indicate a fresh surge in activities toward building diplomatic and strategic ties with various important countries. Indo-US talks have reached the stage of producing a ‘blueprint’ towards building ‘next steps in strategic partnership’ (NSSP). Recently, the Indian Prime Minister attended the Indo-EU summit and an agreement was reached to forge a strategic partnership. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit confirms that the Indian leadership is expanding strategic cooperation, particularly in the defence sector, with Russia.
The Israeli deputy prime minister’s visit to India this month should be seen in the backdrop of this strategic reality. This visit is expected to give a new impetus to defence ties between the two countries. India is Israel’s second largest Asian trading partner, after China and South Korea. It appears Israel will now dominate in defence trade too. In all, 70% per cent of India’s military hardware is of Soviet origin and since the USSR’s 1991 breakup, army, navy and air force have been complaining of hiccups in the supply chain of spares from debt-ridden Russian armament factories. Probably, Israel intends to fill this void.
At the same time, Israel understands that India is looking towards the US, the EU and even partially towards resurgent Russia for future military procurements. Hence, Israel’s vice prime minister Ehud Olmert has a tough task ahead. But he seems to be prepared for the same. Earlier this year, Mr Olmert had called for the creation of a ‘trilateral fund’ between India, US and Israel to build upon advantages in the hi-tech sector and strengthen the ‘strategic triad’ at a trilateral conference in Israel. He feels that India and Israel are on common ground for high-tech ventures. The two sides are expected to set up a joint fund for research and development, particularly in the defence arena.
It is expected that Israel-India relations will be in the forefront despite political differences. This is because, apart from being one of the largest suppliers of cutting edge defence hardware to India, the two sides are also suffering from the menace of terrorism. Hence, there is much ground for cooperation in key areas like counter-terrorism and intelligence- sharing.
In the post-Cold War era, Israel has emerged as a leading arms supplier to India. Last year, India concluded a $30 million agreement with Israel Military Industries (IMI) for Tavor assault rifles, Galil sniper rifles, as well as night vision and laser range-finding and targeting equipment. In March 2004, Israel agreed to sell three Phalcon airborne early warning systems. Israel Aircraft Industries’ (IAI) ties with India are well-known. They have provided services for upgradation of the IAF’s Russian-made MiG-21 ground attack aircraft. Also, Israeli manufactured unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and laser-guided bombs are on the inventory of IAF.
India is in the process of acquiring state-of-the-art radar systems from Israel. Recently, the Indian navy conducted a four-day port call to Israel with two warships. This port call was a goodwill visit, signifying the warming up relationship between India and Israel and a step toward possible combined naval exercises and two-way technological transfers in the future. Training, operational work-ups, hardware and ship design are four areas where India sees its navy working more closely with the Israelis.
However, the Americans are yet to completely lift the post- Pokhran sanctions. Some Israeli products are the result of US-Israel joint collaborations and the US is putting pressure on Israelis for their proposed defence deals with India. Also, India intends to put mission system avionics purchased from Israel on a Russian airborne platform like IL-76s.
Managing defence procurement with Israel is not a big issue, but addressing the political fallout of such purchases is of greater significance. Already, the Americans have assured Pakistan a defence package of $1.3 billion. Till date, India has succeeded in pressuring Russia from developing an arms transfer relationship with Pakistan. Only, if India goes for major ties at the cost of the Russian defence industry, can it stop Russia from looking for alternatives?
The writer is a research fellow at Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, Delhi. These are his personal views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org