Tuesday, 30 January 2007

In the arms of Israel

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 15 August 2006

Long before the CPI(M)'s recent demand to scrap India's defence ties with Israel, governments in New Delhi have finessed difficult questions about that growing military relationship, with politically correct formulations in support of the Palestinian cause. But with Israel's latest foray into Lebanon, the questions could get more searching and, with Tel Aviv already frustrated at India's reluctance to hold hands in public, there is the potential for growing discord. 

Both sides truthfully aver that the military relationship is separate from the political one. But of all commercial dealings, arms relationships are by far the most political. A country can trade in food grains, software or leather for purely economic considerations; Soviet Union gas supplies warmed West Europe through the coldest days of the Cold War. But arms supplies, by their very nature, extend beyond the economic realm into the political. Israeli arms sales have always rested on a common security perception with Raisina Hill: Islamic extremism is the favourite nightmare of decision-makers on both sides. But this security convergence has never translated into open political support for Israel; on July 26 th, India's parliament strongly condemned the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. The arms relationship lives in the shadow of this contradiction between security convergence and political divergence.

The numbers, though, make fine reading for Israel. In less than a decade, its arms sales to India have made Israel the fifth biggest arms supplier in the world. Only Russia sells more weaponry in India, because the Indian military is locked into a dependency: our vast arsenal of traditionally Soviet-origin weaponry must be replaced or upgraded with systems that match its technical characteristics. In practical terms an armoured division equipped with T-72 tanks cannot be upgraded with British Challenger or American Abrams tanks. Only the Russian T-90 (in effect, a new-generation T-72) has the communications links, operating characteristics and logistical similarities that enable it to function seamlessly alongside that armoured division's other weapons systems. 

In penetrating the Indian market, Israel has used the only workable strategy: riding piggyback on the Russian bear. India's major weapons platforms --- tanks, air defence guns, warships, and fighters ---- will remain principally Russian for at least two decades. For Israel, that's not a problem; its defence industries do not specialise in major systems. Instead, Israel swells its bottom line in India by giving a new lease of life to outdated Russian systems. The principle is simple: a major platform, say a Russian MIG-21 fighter, will continue to fly for up to three decades. It's fighting capability --- which depends on its radars, avionics and missile systems --- will get outdated in half that time. Replacing those with state-of-the-art systems (retro-fitment and mid-life upgrades are the technical terms) often costs more than what the fighter did when it was bought. It is here that Israel excels. Cash registers in Tel Aviv are still ringing from upgrading India's old MIG-21s into the Bison fighter, now usable for another fifteen years, and from transforming India's vintage Russian 130 mm artillery guns into modern 155 mm howitzers.

Working to Israel's advantage are the mix-and-match deals now on offer in the global arms supermarkets. India may opt for a mazboot-sasta-aur-tikau Russian platform --- a T-90 tank, a Krivak-class frigate, or a Su-30MKI fighter --- but it no longer has to buy the less-then-cutting-edge electronics, surveillance and missile systems that Russia fits. After problems with the T-90 night vision and fire control equipment and the Krivak anti-missile defences, India's military is wary of Russian electronics. So the three new frigates that India is buying from Russia will be fitted with an Israeli anti-missile system: the Extended Range Barak (ERB) that Tel Aviv says it will co-develop with India. 

The agreement to co-develop the ERB shows how Israel is learning from Russia in exploiting the less-than-ethical working of India's defence production organisation. When Russia wanted to bypass the unpredictable realm of competitive bidding in capturing the Indian market for its Yakhont cruise missile, Moscow signed up with Delhi to "co-develop" the Brahmos. Billed as a triumph of joint development, the Brahmos is little more than the Russian Yakhont with a joint label. Similarly, the Extended Range Barak, "jointly developed" by India and Israel, will be an up-rated version of the old Barak missile, with India firmly locked into the deal. 

Israel's greatest achievement could be its entry into the innermost portals of Indian defence: the shadowy anti-missile defence programme, that detects and shoots down incoming ballistic missiles (presumably armed with nuclear warheads) before they hit Indian targets. India has bought billion-dollar Green Pine radars from Israel that already scan threatening Pakistani launch areas, such as a 500 km sector around Islamabad. Now, if America clears the sale, India could spend more billions on Israeli Arrow missiles that will severely erode Pakistan's nuclear deterrent, perhaps forcing Islamabad to step up its productions of nuclear bombs.

With billions of dollars in the balance, Israel has chosen to quietly accept being politically spurned by India. But with the two establishments clearly in sync on the military and the strategic fronts, Israel could be correctly calculating that New Delhi's public distance from Tel Aviv will inevitably diminish, gradually transforming mistress into wife. 

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