Israel’s Role in Strengthening India’s Air Capabilities, An Exclusive Opinion Piece Ahead of PM Narendra Modi’s Israel Visit

By Vidya Sagar Reddy (*)

India has recently cleared purchase of Barak 1 missiles as well as payment for armed Heron TP unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) from Israel. This is a welcoming development before India’s Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming state visit to Israel. The burgeoning defence relations with Israel strengthened by ‘Think West’ policy framework have played a critical role in advancing India’s air capabilities.

India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 and the issue of defence cooperation has attracted mainstream attention soon. With the fear of upsetting other resident powers in West Asia subsiding, India has begun to lay groundwork for framing a nuanced policy towards West Asia.

India hosted Iran’s President in 2003 for Republic Day celebrations leading to plans for building the Chabahar port. In 2006, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia visited India concluding Delhi Declaration and later Riyadh Declaration in 2010. India and Saudi Arabia also established defence relations and upgraded their diplomatic relations to strategic partnership.

Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2015 was the first in 34 years. The UAE is perhaps the foremost of the West Asian countries to make efforts at transitioning into a multi-sectoral economy investing in space, high tech manufacturing, renewable energy etc.

The groundwork for these meetings was laid by frequent visits and high-level communication between relevant ministries as well as the armed forces creating multi-faceted bilateral relations with West Asian countries.

It is apparent that India need not shy away from stressing the strategic relevance of its relations with Israel, which forms a key pillar of its ‘Think West’ foreign policy.

Amidst active diplomatic visits by Israel’s serving and retired prime ministers and presidents, Modi’s visit to Israel has assumed high significance, which can also catalyse deeper cooperation between Indian and Israeli defence establishments.

The India-Israel defence relations are in transition phase moving away from mere buyer-seller relationship to joint development of military technologies. India has bought three advanced Phalcon radar systems mounted on the Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft for airborne early warning and control purposes, with two more of these advanced systems in pipeline.

The Indian Air Force already operates Israel made Searcher and Heron 1 UAVs for surveillance purposes. The current order will allow India to fly armed Heron UAVs in vital areas and neutralise threats to the country’s national security avoiding the loss of Indian soldiers.

India has also acknowledged adopting Israel made Green Pine radar to create the indigenous version named Swordfish long range tracking radar.

The Swordfish is a critical component of India’s ballistic missile defence programme tracking enemy’s ballistic missiles and directing interceptors to neutralise them. This radar system is being upgraded to detect and track missiles fired over thousands of kilometres away.

However, the Barak 8 air defence system elevated India-Israel defence relations initiating joint development and production of military equipment. The Israel Aerospace Industries in partnership with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation designed Barak 8 long range air to surface missile for the Indian Navy to neutralise a range of threats including enemy aircraft, helicopters, UAVs and sea-skimming anti-ship missiles.

This missile system is capable of defending the ships from saturation attacks where the threats can emerge from multiple dimensions simultaneously. This system can provide safety zone for a flotilla of warships thus enabling them execute their missions without apprehensions. The newer classes of Indian Navy warships such as Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam will be featuring this weapon system.

The successful tests conducted by both India and Israel mimicking extreme threat environments is a validation of not only the technological advances made under this initiative but also the high degree of technical and managerial cooperation achieved between India and Israel. Israel has also come forward to support ‘Make in India’ initiative by agreeing to produce these missiles at Bharat Dynamics Limited.

The land version of this missile under development and testing will be deployed by Indian Air Force and Indian Army.

Another significant development concerning India-Israel defence relations is the upcoming ‘Blue Flag’ exercise hosted by Israel. This multinational exercise will involve air force contingents from seven countries such as the United States, France, Germany etc. allowing the Indian Air Force hone its skills in simulated extreme threat environments.

It will also allow establishing service-to-service relations between India and Israel alongside other advanced countries. The diplomatic balancing between India and different prominent state actors of this region is evident in defence diplomacy as well. An Indian Air Force contingent has already paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2015 and, India and the UAE have constituted joint air force exercise Desert Eagle.

With strategic planning in New Delhi creating the necessary encouraging political atmosphere, India’s defence relations with Israel have certainly gained momentum leading to joint development and co-production of various military technologies. Israel now plays a critical role in India’s advances in offensive and defensive air operations meant to safeguarding its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

(*) Mr Vidya Sagar Reddy Is A Research Assistant, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative With Observer Research Foundation (ORF).  The views expressed by him are his own and do not represent that of the organisation he works for. 

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