IV. Defense-Related Contacts Since Normalization, Indian Airforce
IV. Defense-Related Contacts Since Normalization


Emphasizing the commercial and cultural aspects of the relations, both countries are extremely wary of discussing the military and security dimension of their relationship. Both governments go out of their way to minimize, if not halt the flow of information pertaining to those issues. In August 1994, Israeli officials tried unsuccessfully to prevent the local media from reporting the presence of Defense Ministry's Director-General David Ivry in New Delhi, even after the Indian media gave widespread coverage to the visit. Similarly, Indian diplomats were unwilling to acknowledge the presence of Defense Secretary T. K. Banerji in Israel, though the media discussed his agenda even before he left Indian soil.

Most defense-related visits and contacts do not reach the media or are reported after the delegations' return home. Aware of the domestic opposition to defense cooperation with Israel, Indian leaders and officials have regularly denied reports that the two countries have signed defense agreements. They do, however, concede that negotiations are being held with various Israeli companies and agencies.

It is not difficult to fathom the rationale behind this approach. Military relations are sensitive, controversial and hence are subject to official and unofficial censorship as well as restrictions. Defense Minister Sharad Pawar's remarks, in February 1992, on cooperation with Israel on counter-terrorism, evoked strong protests from a few Muslim Members of Parliament. Like other members of the establishment, the military prefers conditions where the flow of information can be controlled, limited and even manipulated. Undue and unnecessary publicity concerning security relations and cooperation with foreign countries undermine vital state security. Premature and needless disclosures of intelligence cooperation or special operations involving external powers could be politically costly or unacceptable to India.

Besides this general reluctance, India and Israel have certain additional reasons for their secrecy. Portrayed as an integral part of national security, Israel exercises strict censorship over the publication of details concerning defense exports. Though recent developments, such as the end of the Cold War, the thaw in Arab-Israeli confrontation and the growing recession facing the defense industries, have led to marginal relaxation of official restrictions, arms export still remains a sensitive issue. The silence is also compelled by political considerations whereby close ties with a number of developing countries, especially in the security arena, remain controversial. For instance, in April 1997, the Israeli television reported that a MiG-29 fighter from an unnamed country was in Israel "to check the compatibility of various weapon systems." The general Israeli practice of identifying arms exports only by regions is problematic because, for some strange reason, Israel classifies India as part of Southeast Asia.

Military cooperation remains a major issue in bilateral discussions. Senior officials from the Defense Ministries of both countries regularly exchanged visits. Defense cooperation figured prominently in numerous visits between the two countries' political leaders, as in the high profile state visit to India of President Ezer Weizman in December 1996. Anti-terrorist cooperation was discussed also during the brief visit of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in May 1993. The official delegations which accompanied both these leaders included a number of industrialists from the defense industry, and even visits by Foreign Ministry officials were not free from the defense angle.

The bilateral contacts and negotiations covered a wide range of issues and areas such as counter-terrorism, intelligence cooperation, avionics, radars, anti-missile systems, aircraft upgrading, etc. A number of these visits and contacts related to the air force, underscoring the importance of the air force in the emerging relations. The Israeli Air Force chief visited India in March 1995 and his Indian counterpart was in Israel in July 1996. From a strategic perspective, the most important development occurred in June 1996 when a leading defense scientist, Abdul Kalam, paid an unannounced visit to Israel. Likewise, the arrival in April 1996 of a defense attache to Israel, which marked a new phase in the bilateral relations. The appointment of an air force officer as the first attache emphasizes the important role played by the air force in the bilateral military relations.

Absence of a detailed discussion of the bilateral defense contacts makes it essential to closely examine these developments. Because of the overlapping nature of these contacts and negotiations, the narrative adopts a chronological rather than thematic approach.

In early February 1992, days after India announced its decision to establish diplomatic relations, Ya'acov Lapidot, Director-General of the former Police Ministry remarked that India was interested in Israeli assistance in anti-terror activities. Lapidot had returned from India where he attended an international police convention. Reacting to the Indian decision, junior minister and government spokesman Benjamin Netanyahu told a visiting Indian journalist that Israel had "developed expertise in dealing with terrorism at the field level and also internationally, at the political and legal level, and would be happy to share it with India." Since then combating terrorism has become a constant theme in Indo-Israeli security discussions.

On 23 February, Defense Minister Sharad Pawar declared that normalization had paved the way for "drawing on Israel's successful experience to curb terrorism." In an unprecedented manner, Israel's charge d'affaires, Giora Becher (who had then moved to New Delhi from Bombay and was holding the fort till the nomination of the first Israeli ambassador), clarified that "it [was] not the right time" to discuss defense cooperation. Amidst speculations of impending military cooperation, junior Defense Minister S. Krishnakumar informed the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of the Indian parliament) that there was 'no proposal', 'no initiative' and 'no offer' of any kind of defense ties with Israel. Briefly intervening in the debate, Prime Minister Rao remarked that as there were no contacts at the government level for a long time, "we obviously know less than some of the members. Once the relations start functioning, we will see what we can learn from them."

In March, Moshe Yager, Deputy Director-General in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visited India to lay the groundwork for the Israeli embassy in New Delhi. Besides meeting senior Indian officials in the Ministry of External Affairs, he also met India's Defense Secretary (permanent Under-Secretary for Defense) N.N. Vohra. Having been forced to admit that the meeting had taken place, Yager was evasive about its nature and observed that "Nobody told us of Indian needs in the areas of defense."

In late May, an Israeli delegation comprising of 'military equipment manufacturers and exports' was in India for negotiations. Neither the Indian government nor the Israeli embassy were willing to confirm the presence of the delegation. Interestingly, at that time the first Israeli ambassador Ephraim Dubek had not yet assumed office. In August, within weeks after the opening of the Indian mission in Tel Aviv, a delegation from Malat (a subsidiary of the IAI) came to India and offered cruise missile technology for unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. According to some reports the offer included the joint development of Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the supply of an Israeli secure digital data link to India's MiGs. Another delegation from Malat came in December to brief officials of the Indian army and air force, potential users of UAVs, and offered the third-generation Searcher long-endurance multi-role UAVs and Ranger multi-purpose tactical UAVs.

In February 1993, a spokesman for the Confederation of Indian Industry told Defense News that a delegation from IAI including defense experts would visit later on that month to negotiate with the Indian government. Likewise, a senior official of the Israel Export Institute disclosed that in October that year the Institute would send a large delegation to India including those specializing in "the whole spectrum of electronics, telecommunications, data communications, electro-optics, software and avionics." Meanwhile an official of the Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) project at the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) denied reports that India was buying Israeli RPVs or that ADE was seeking collaboration with Malat for joint production of UAVs in India.

The issue of defense cooperation was raised when Foreign Secretary (permanent Under-Secretary of Ministry of External Affairs) J.N. Dixit became the first senior Indian diplomat to visit Israel, in March 1993, accompanied by Rakesh Sood, head of the Disarmament Division at the Foreign Office.

The following month, a high level delegation of Israel's Manufacturers Association went to India for a two-week visit, and included representatives from the defense industry. There were hints that when Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar led the Indian delegation for the AgriTech exhibition in May, he was accompanied by a high-level military team that visited Israeli military facilities and establishments.

Amidst speculations of growing defense cooperation, days before Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' highly publicized visit in May 1993, ambassador Dubek denied that defense cooperation was in the offering and ruled out discussions concerning a defense pact or nuclear energy cooperation during Peres' visit. The twelve-member business delegation accompanying Peres included chief executives from IAI, Elbit and Elul Technologies and it is believed that the question of upgrading of MiG-21s was on the agenda.

Only weeks earlier, India Today charged that the Indian government "had been sleeping on an Israeli offer to modernize and upgrade the aging MiG-21 for fear of a political fallout in the Islamic world. The government had even said no to posting a military attache in Israel for the same reason." Meanwhile both in parliament and elsewhere, Indian leaders vehemently denied any defense cooperation with Israel.

In June, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that India had purchased $400 million worth of fire-control systems for installations in the license-produced Vijayanta tanks and artillery equipment and ammunition for its Soviet-made T-72 tanks.44 That same month, G. S. Iyer, Joint- Secretary at the Indian Defense Ministry led a 16-member National Defense College (NDC) team to Israel.

The following month, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin delineated to H. K. Dua, editor of The Hindustan Times, the limitations of military cooperation between the two countries. He was categorical on whether Israel would consider a technology transfer

We are limited by our commitments to the United States... Whatever we get from the United States as an end-user, we are bound by our commitment... not to give others such technology. But we have technology which is quite advanced and which is not limited, except by certain international agreements. The Prime Minister was probably referring to Israel's commitments to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

A 14-member delegation, representing Israeli telecommunications and electronics visited India in September, primarily to promote cooperation with the ADE, developing Falcon RPVs. Nine members of the delegation represented firms such as IAI, Tadiran, Rafael, Future Technology, Elbit Computers, El-Op Electro-Optics Industries and Rada Electronics, which manufacture and export defense hardware and software used in missiles, guided weapons systems, anti-missile systems, military electronics and fire control systems. A delegation of the Association of Electronic Industries of Israel visited India for three weeks in October, and included representatives from IAI and its subsidiary Elta, the manufacturers of electronic weapon systems. Weeks later, Jane's Defense Weekly disclosed that Sibat, the Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Organization of the Israeli Defense Ministry, had appointed over fifty agents in New Delhi to sell various defense items to India.

As the media was reporting on possible and potential defense cooperation with Israel, on 16 December 1993, junior Defense Minister Mallikarjun told the Upper House that India had not signed any defense agreement with Israel in defense cooperation and that only exploratory talks were being conducted with Israel.

In December 1993, India's first air show, AVIA-93, in Bangalore, provided an opportunity for Israel to exhibit its defense skills and acumen. Capitalizing on the occasion, Sibat put up the second largest display after the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the exhibit became a star attraction for the top brass of the Indian defense establishment, including Abdul Kalam. At that time, both IAI and Elbit were actively campaigning for the MiG-21BIS contract, and held several rounds of discussions with the Indian defense officials. They were competing with India's Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), the Russian MiG-Moscow Aircraft Production Organization (MiG-MAPO), a French consortium led by Thompson-CSF and Grumman Corporation of the United States. Keen on securing the lucrative MiG upgrading contract, Elbit displayed the remodeled MiG-21 2000, which incorporated advanced avionics, including weapons delivery navigation, communication and display systems. Both Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul and his naval counterpart V.S. Shekhawat were extensively briefed by the Elbit officials.

Shortly afterwards, in March 1994, Defense News disclosed that India would purchase 16 Hunter and Seeker UAVs from based Malat for $1.6 million a piece and two control stations. It was estimated that India required about 60 control stations and 560-70 UAVs, and that Israel would assist India's Falcon RPVs and Lakshya advanced Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) project.52 The issue of RPVs was raised during the visit of Deputy Minister Yossi Beilin and his discussions with Indian leaders in April 1994. The following month, however, the DRDO dismissed reports of Indian purchase of RPVs from Israel.

Around this time, The Times of India disclosed that an Israeli offer to assist in defending the Indo-Pakistani border and high mountain passes along the Line of Control (LOC) in the Kashmir valley was being examined by the government. The proposal, already studied by defense experts and Home Ministry officials, envisaged sealing in stretches of nearly 600 kms of border along the tough terrain in the Valley, which would be equipped with electronic systems to monitor human movements.

Citing Israeli defense officials, Defense News reported in July that while focusing on intelligence exchanges and upgrading India's Russian inventory, Israeli cooperation with India would "preclude cooperation on ballistic missile technology that could run afoul of international arms control guidelines" such as the MTCR. In August 1994, David Ivry led a high level delegation to India, "reciprocating the visit to Israel last year of his Indian counterpart." In October, Prof. U. R. Rao, member of the Indian Space Commission, came to Israel with a four-member delegation. Among others, he met Prof. Yuval Ne'eman, head of Israel's Space Agency. Not long ago, Prof. Rao was the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization and in 1992 negotiated the cryogenic engine deal with Moscow.

In January 1995, a delegation from the Indian Home Ministry came to Israel on an introductory tour to the Gaza Strip, to study the four-tiered specialized barbed wire system. This step was part of the Indian strategy to combat illegal crossing from Pakistan along the 1,500 km border, as the Western Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are of similar terrain and weather conditions.

In March, Israeli Air Force Chief, Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger became the first serving defense chief to visit India since normalization. He spent a week in India, accompanied by members of the Air Defense, Combat Air Arm and Air Intelligence units. According to a media report, he offered a package deal which included "Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), RPVs, access to an air platform for anti-defection and anti- jamming maneuvers, a window on a recently launched Israeli military communication satellite, specialized weapons .... and training of [Indian air force] personnel in the fourth generation fly-by-wire systems." In return, Israel apparently demanded the use of the Indian Air Force bases at Jodhpur or Bhuj as air staging and refueling facilities. Bodinger reportedly told his interlocutors that Israel was seeking air staging facilities due to "strategic and regional interest compulsions."

The following month, Flight International disclosed that both countries had sealed a $50 million deal for Harpy drones and that Israel had offered its airborne early warning technology based on Phalcon. In June, quoting an unnamed "senior diplomat from an Asian country", The Jerusalem Post denied speculations that the Indian Defense Secretary had visited Israel.62 Visiting Israel a month later than originally planned, K. A. Nambiar reportedly discussed Indian acquisition of RPVs and the possibility of Israeli cooperation in upgrading indigenous T-72 tanks.64 That same month Kaushal Singh, Joint Secretary at the Defense Ministry led a 16-member NDC delegation to Israel.

A few months later, an Israeli delegation representing the Defense Production Wing visited India and offered a series of radar systems much needed by the Indian defense establishment, following the installation of three Chinese radars in Myanmar to monitor India's eastern coast.

Towards the end of October, Israel hosted Ashok Tandon, Director- General of the National Security Guards (NSG), an elite commando unit responsible for VIP protection. An unnamed Home Ministry official was quoted saying that India was looking for cooperation with Israel for "training and upgrading the skills of commandos and purchase of gadgets and weaponry."67 It is widely believed that ever since its creation in 1984, following the assassination of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, absence of political relations did not inhibit NSG from developing limited cooperation with the Shabak (the Israeli General Security Service) and a number of NSG commandos were even sent to Israel for training. The timing of Tandon's three-day visit could not have been more inauspicious as within a couple of days after he left Israel, the Shabak failed the ultimate test of protecting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin's assassination overshadowed the goodwill visit a few days later of two Indian naval ships INS Gomati and INS Subhadra, the arrival of which constituted a major development in relations since the early 1950s.

In December, Air Vice-Marshal V.K. Bhatia, Assistant Chief of Air Staff Operations, led a four-member delegation to Israel, to discuss flight safety measures in preventing loss of aircraft due to bird hits, since Israel, as a major transit point for millions of European birds migrating to the warm southern hemisphere, had experience in confronting problems posed by birds' migration to air force training. According to the Ministry of Defense, the Indian Air Force had an annual loss of 40 aircraft in the 1960s and 30 each during the 1970s and 1980s, on average. During the 1990s, the annual loss reached an average of 24 aircraft. These accidents result in the loss of trained pilots, often leading to a shortage of manpower for a particular type of aircraft, in addition to the loss of expensive aircraft.

In January 1996, it was reported that India was close to placing a $100 million order with Elta Electronics for 90 radar-jamming pads for its air force. However, in March India signed a $300 million deal with Moscow for upgrading and modernizing 125 MiG-21BIS fighter jets first introduced in India in 1976. This effectively eliminated the IAI and Elbit as the prime contractors.

Amidst the controversy over India's position vis-a-vis NPT, India's ambassador in Cairo, Kanual Sibal, told the Egyptian media in March that though both countries were opposed to the NPT, his country did not "maintain relations with Israel in the field of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology."

What can be described as the high point of Indo-Israel security cooperation and potential for partnership came in June 1996 with the visit to Israel of the noted scientist Abdul Kalam, nominally Scientific Adviser to the Defense Minister and the brain behind India's most promising military projects: missiles, the Light Combat Aircraft, the main battle tank Arjun and a host of other defense ventures. In the words of Aaron Karp, for two decades "all major space launch and ballistic missile projects were the direct responsibility of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, whose skill, authority and success reinforced each other." Kalam's presence in Israel was revealed only weeks after he had returned to New Delhi, as the visit took place days after new governments assumed office in both countries and when the victory of Netanyahu was viewed with skepticism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Citing foreign sources to circumvent the censorship regulations, Globes reported in July, that Rafael had offered India its first radar-guided Alto air-to-air missiles. Originally developed as a secret project, the missile was undergoing testing, and was expected to be utilized for upgrading Israel's F-16s.

Later that month, just weeks after a new coalition government led by the United Front assumed office in New Delhi, Air Chief Marshal S. K. Sareen came to Israel as the guest of Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu. By then Israel had lost the contract for MiG upgrading to the Mikoyan Design Bureau of Russia, but managed to secure the sub-contract for avionics. Besides the avionics component of the upgrading program, Sareen's agenda probably included AWACS, UAVs, electronic counter- measures and electronic counter-counter measures. Sareen was shortly followed by Deputy Air-Chief Marshal M.S. Vasudev. Israeli naval chief Vice-Admiral Alex Tal was in India in early November 1996 and held talks with Indian officials including junior Defense Minister N.V.N. Somu.

That same month it was disclosed that Elta had won a $80 million tender to supply electronic warfare tools to India's MiG-21s. Amidst media speculations, the DRDO denied suggestions that it planned to procure Phalcon systems, with the explanation that even after ten years of development the Israeli AWACS still lacked 360 degree vision. Rafael, Cyclone Aviation and Sibat were the principal participants of the Aero India '96 international air show, hosted in Bangalore in early December.

Meanwhile, a report in the Indian media disclosed that the Indian air force had bought a sophisticated Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) system from Israel for developing air combat tactics. Described as the "first major defense purchase" from Israel, the ACMI was installed at the high security Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE), located at Jamnagar air base. It also reported that the navy had bought electronic support measure (ESM) sensors from Israel for installing in the solitary operational aircraft carrier INS Virat. Both navies are believed to be jointly developing ECM capability.

That same month, the Indian Navy awarded a $10 million contract to the IAI's Ramta Division and the state-owned Goa Shipyard to build two Dvora MK-II patrol boats for maritime surveillance, to be built in India.84 Around the same time as the visit of IAI head, Moshe Keret, in New Delhi, a senior official from the Elta division of the IAI told reporters in Bangalore that Israel has offered its EL M-2022A multi-mode maritime surveillance radar which could simultaneously track up to 100 targets.86 This radar is primarily aimed at threats emanating from Pakistan's acquisition of P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft from the US.

On President Ezer Weizman's week-long state visit in December 1996-January 1997, following a sentimental journey to Yelahanka air force base near Bangalore, where he served as an RAF pilot during the World War II, Weizman said he would recommend to Israel's Defense Minister the opening of an air attache's office in New Delhi, in order to enhance greater cooperation between the two air forces. Unaccompanied by journalists, he visited military industries and India's space center located near Bangalore. On this trip Weizman made an offer to the Indian air force of the Kfir aircraft, named by a section of the press as "a New Year gift." The offer was a non starter and the obsolete Kfir, an unauthorized copycat of the French Mirage III, could not substitute, let alone replace India's aging MiG-21s. Weizman was trying to relinquish the unwanted aircraft lying in Ben-Gurion airport and India naturally declined the offer. During the visit, Elta reportedly signed a $100 million agreement with India to provide electronic warfare systems while Iscar initialed a partnership contract with the Indian Air Force's blade factory.

In February 1997, Defense Secretary T. K. Banerji led a high level defense delegation to Israel to discuss the "exchange of technology". Even though the delegation spent five days in Italy prior to their arrival in Israel, only the latter visit drew widespread attention in the Indian media. Shortly after Banerji returned home, The Hindustan Times identified Russia as the prime conduit for Israeli arms and gave three prime rationales behind this circuitous route: not to irk the Arab world with whom India has close historical ties, to prevent Pakistan from indulging in anti-India bashing over Israeli connections and to prevent the US from intervening and raising the 'bogey' of MTCR. For technical as well as financial reasons, Russia is unlikely to abdicate its role as the principal defense supplier to India, and sub-contracting Russian defense deals to Israel would be prudent and less controversial. The report also identified a host of areas where Israeli expertise and skills would be useful, including anti-missile technology, self- propelled guns, RPVs, air defense systems, counter-insurgency operations, MiG-21 and T-72 upgrading and anti-ship missiles.

Later, a report in the Defense News suggested that India was interested in Israel's missile technology, especially the Arrow anti-missile missile system, currently being developed by Israel. Having failed to persuade the US to impose sanctions on the suspected Chinese transfer of M-11 missiles to Pakistan, India appears to be gearing for an anti-ballistic missile program. The undisclosed visit of Abdul Kalam in June 1996 should be seen in this context. The Arrow, however, is not a missile that India could acquire off the Israeli shelf. Jointly developed with substantial American funding and support, Israel cannot sell the Arrow missile or its technology without American permission. Given Washington's concerns over India's nuclear and missile programs such permission seems unlikely.

In April 1997, more than five years after normalization, Wing Commander N. Brown assumed office as India's first Defense Attache in Israel. This has been one of the issues highlighting the delicacy with which the Indian government has approached its relations with Israel. In June 1992, soon after his appointment as the first Indian Charge d'affaires, Virendra Gupta was quoted saying that India was considering assigning a military attache to Israel. If it took the political leadership over four decades to establish diplomatic relations, the security establishment needed five more years to persuade the political leadership to send a military attache, the inordinate delay in the whole process underscoring the complexity of the situation. Around January 1996 or a few months prior to the 1996 elections to the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the Indian Parliament), the Indian government approved the air force proposal to send an official of the rank of Group Captain as military attache to the Indian embassy in Tel Aviv. However, the professional enthusiasm of the military establishment for closer cooperation with Israel was curbed by the sensitivity of the politicians towards Muslim voters. Thus it took over a year to implement the decision. Prime Minister Netanyahu told a group of visiting Indian journalists in July that Israel could share defense technologies with India without any strings attached.

The Indian parliamentary elections, which led to the formation of a government led by the Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took place during the period of the visit to Israel early in March 1998, of Gen. Prakash Malik, who became the first serving Indian Chief of Army Staff to visit Israel since normalization. Hints of a visit by the Indian general to the disputed Golan Heights were strongly denied by India.

In short, since 1992 both countries have maintained serious and substantial contacts, dialogues and transactions covering a wide arena of defense and security issues. From these publicly known developments it is clear that, in spite of their diversity, most of these developments revolve around the air force, indicating the direction of emerging ties.