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Balancing Our Relationship With Israel and West Asia

Lt. Gen K J Singh, PVSM, AVSM(Bar)

Indian Army Officer(Retd.)

The Israeli PM has concluded his visit after an eventful six-day itinerary marked by some remarkable symbolism: renaming of Haifa Memorial, visits to Chabad House, Bollywood and Sabarmati Ashram. Propelled by personal chemistry and with some imaginative re-packaging, especially with renewal of agreements, it can be officially termed as a successful exchange.
There was much bonhomie articulated through gestures like the PM receiving the visiting delegation at the airport and complimentary tweet by Benjamin Netanyahu of ‘India- Israel relationship being made in heaven’. In essence, all the right kind of noises have been made yet gains or progress on crunch issues related to defence; revival of Spike deal and resolution of problems related to AWACS purchase were missing.
For the present, we may console ourselves with an assurance that probably discreet negotiations with some hard bargaining are underway and we may have some good news in the not too distant future.
As a build-up, there were heightened expectations and some hype fueled by imaginative leaks that the Spike deal may be revived through the Government to Government (G to G) route.
The timing of withdrawal of Request For Proposal (RFP), on the eve of Israeli PM’s visit was most baffling specially when a trilateral manufacturing facility incorporating Rafael, Kalyani Group and most importantly a DPSU, Bharat Dynamics has been set up with much fanfare under ‘Make in India’ initiative.
It is a well-known fact that ‘Nag Project’, which has been dragging on since 1980s has recently made some substantial progress with the incorporation of a French seeker. However, it will be safe to assume that given the not too impressive track record of DRDO, production and actual fielding of the missile may take three to four years.
This success is most heartening and calls for celebration especially by soldiers like us, who have participated in the project. We all want an affordable indigenous missile preferably with our own seeker.
The heart of missile is its guidance system. If this critical component is externally sourced, it reduces the entire exercise to essentially a licensed production.
We may recall the example of production of Armour Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) ammunition under Transfer of Technology (ToT), which had to be capped at 35,000 units per year because of the fixed supply of Core Penetrator by Russians.
The rescinded RFP for 8000 ATGMs worth $500 million was at very advanced stages and was after the American Javelin had been ruled out consequent to demonstration firing and preliminary negotiations for a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) option; an American version of G to G.
By some accounts, the Army is very upset as ATGM is an identified priority project, mandated to be fast tracked to make up our hollowness in our operational capabilities due to the depleted war wastage reserves. Land forces continue to be saddled with outdated Milan and Konkurs missiles. There is a feeling that DRDO has once again managed to pull the rug from under the feet, literally at the very last minute.
The reasons advanced are huge costs involved and the much touted claim that development cost of Nag is barely $50 million. As has been the case earlier too, such figures hide more than what they reveal i.e., hidden costs like establishment, human capital and import component. It has been reported that since Army wants this proven weapon system, considering the sensitivity involved, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has relented, and has no objections to the deal as long as it does not involve transfer of technology (ToT). This is not only retrograde but even baffling!
Indian Army is in dire need of third-generation ATGMs having infra-red seeker with integrated avionics to upgrade its obsolete missile systems. The requirement is of the magnitude 40,000 missiles for Army’s 390 odd infantry battalions and 45 mechanised units.
Spike is a battle proven missile which has much longer range and is lighter in weight when compared to Nag. It is time, we holistically analyse our requirement and look at a twin track approach. The magnitude of our projected requirement can ideally be met through this approach. While, we must drive a very hard bargain with Israelis, it should be accompanied by an objective cost analysis of Nag development project.
Hopefully, with astute leadership, a ‘win-win’ model can be negotiated to accommodate all relevant stakeholders and most importantly foster an eco-system to produce two missile systems locally.
The current government has to be lauded for bringing our relationship with Israel literally out of the closet with the maiden visit of PM Modi in July 2017, which prompted Netanyahu to remark, we have been waiting for 70 years.
Leaving aside some exaggeration, it came 25 years after India became the last major country in 1992 to establish full diplomatic ties. Despite our principled stand on Palestine, the relationship has blossomed catalysed by our dependence on cutting edge technologies in defence and civil disciplines like agro-bio technology, solar and cyber, to highlight a few.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents arms sales globally, reported that Israel sold $599 million worth arms and armaments to India i.e., about half of the $1.2 billion in arms Israel sold around the world in 2016.
As per some projections, with some more deals like Spike, Israel even has the potential to emerge as the largest arms supplier. It may surprise many, that the ultimate realist, Parvez Musharraf flirted with idea of getting close to Israel to get some critical technologies.
However, he was stymied by well entrenched lobbies.
Chinese foot print in Israel especially in industrial and technological sectors looks large and ominous due to their expertise in adaptive assimilation and cloning. Is it an organised low cost route to get such technology? Yet the obvious question that stares us in the face is: despite natural convergence and shared interests on issues like terrorism, can we go the whole hog with Israelis? Notwithstanding our desire and dependencies, we are constrained to take a nuanced approach and play the balancing game.
To placate our not so reliable friends in West Asia, who have always preferred Pakistan over us on issues like Kashmir, despite our principled approach on Palestine, the PM is slated to be the first Indian PM to visit Palestine in the first half of February. Our main interests in West Asia include energy security, large foreign remittances by seven million strong workforce in Gulf countries and a huge big market. Iran plays a key role in our strategic calculus with potential for enabling alternative connectivity through Chabahar to Central Asia and possibly Europe. It opens options to checkmate China Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gwadar.
There is also a proposal for a large order for sourcing locomotives and freight wagons from India. We are naturally conscious of 50 plus votes of Organisation of Islamic (OIC) countries that can make a vital difference in our quest for permanent membership in Security Council.
It was imaginative on part of our PM to term India-Israel relationship as ‘I-4- I’, signifying India for Israel and Israel for India and equally encouraging response of Israeli PM to call it, ‘I squared, T squared, standing for India-Israel, Ties for To-morrow.
For de-hyphenation, the need is to build confidence across the board and invest in and safeguard our core interests. It calls for discreet negotiations especially with Israel on sharing of strategic intelligence and co-operation on counter terrorism including cyber and nuclear terrorism.
India also needs to cement its defence co-operation with Israel as it is the only country that can help us to make up our inventory, expeditiously. This guided but discreet hand-holding can be modelled on forays of Chinese entities, which are shown to be de-linked from the official establishments. For it to happen, nominated strategic partners in the Indian defence industry have to be empowered and guided.
I can’t help but remember my Israeli friend of peacekeeping days, who used to say, “Relationships have to be invested in and nurtured with a long term commitment.” To this seminal wisdom, I am tempted to add, “Also balanced and managed till the time is ripe”.



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