V. Areas of Cooperation, Indian Airforce
V. Areas of Cooperation


From these visits and high level contacts, reported in the media but rarely discussed by either government, one can identify certain broad areas of security-related cooperation between the two military establishments. They revolve around India's ambitious and ongoing attempts to design, develop and produce major platforms, mostly pertaining to the air force. In all these areas, India has been pursuing specific projects and has made significant progress in some of them. One cannot ignore the possibility of cooperation in other areas such as intelligence cooperation, counter- terrorism, coastal patrol, small arms, mines, electronic fencing or joint air, military or naval exercises; Even in the absence of normal diplomatic relations, some working relations did exist between the intelligence establishment of both countries. The problem of infiltration from Pakistan and Bangladesh compels India to look to Israeli expertise in confronting similar threats. Likewise, India procured from Israel small arms in the 1960s and in the early 1980s, as well as two patrol vessels after normalization. However, such cooperation was neither unique nor special and even some of the Arab regimes overtly opposed to Israel maintained professional contacts with the Israeli intelligence services.

Under Abdul Kalam, India's defense establishment has been made aware of the issue of technology and the securing of vital national interests as "a viable and effective instrument of power." Western concerns over exports of dual-use technologies, and determination to prevent them, together with the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union, have exacerbated the importance of indigenous technological progress. India shares the view that Western concerns over non-proliferation have often served as camouflage for sound commercial considerations.

Defense-related research in India is conducted by the DRDO which is comprised of fifty laboratories and establishments spread across the country. The approximate Indian equivalent of Rafael, it is involved in design and development of activities "in a variety of disciplines, such as aeronautics, armaments, combat vehicles, naval technology, rockets and missiles, computer science, electronics and instrumentation (including communication, radars and electronic warfare), artificial intelligence, robotics, engineering, terrain research, explosives safety, materials (metallic, non-metallic and composite), life sciences (including high altitude agriculture, high altitude and desert physiology and food), nuclear medicine, psychology, camouflage, avalanche forecast and control, work study, systems analysis, training and information systems." As a result, the DRDO would be in the forefront of any security partnership between India and Israel.

A. Light Combat Aircraft

Developing a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) remains the most ambitious military program currently undertaken by the DRDO. The need for a new range of fighter aircraft cannot be overstated. As a middle-sized air power with significant expertise in the license production of Russian- made MiGs, the desire to keep its defense requirements free from external pressures encouraged India to pursue the LCA option, which, with a sufficient domestic market, need not depend on exports to economize the cost of production. For instance, India currently has over 300 MiG-21s (including the 125 slated for upgrading) which would have to be replaced within a decade. In the post-Cold War era, the cost of replacing aging fleets with unsubsidized imports has become astronomical and prohibitive.

With the declared intention of replacing the license-built Ajeet (British Gnat Mark I) and MiG-21 fighters by 1991, the DRDO launched the LCA program in 1983.107 The launching coincided with India's policy to look for non-Soviet options for its military needs and to gradually reduce its dependence upon Moscow for military supplies. Though not as acute as Israel's situation, India's dependence on a single supplier has been enormous and in certain key areas almost total. The LCA has been projected as the most cost-effective and relatively inexpensive alternative for the air force as well as "the front-line air superiority fighter aircraft, with secondary close air-support capabilities, of the Indian Air Force in the early part of the next century (years 2005-2020)." The first technology demonstrator was completed on 17 November 1995 and the first flight test has been re-scheduled for late 1998 as steps have been taken "to accelerate the pace of development, fabrication, flight testing and flight clearance leading to induction of LCA into the Indian Air Force by the year 2003."

Like many other projects, the LCA program was constrained, from the start, by technological and financial limitations. Having opted for technological independence, the DRDO found itself dependent on foreign technology for the LCA, and according to some estimates, as much as 70 percent of the LCA components are imported. Delays in the production schedule not only escalate the cost, but add to the technological obsolescence of the finished product. Even if the presented timetable of 2005 is maintained, there would still be a time gap of 23 years since the conception of the project. Further, the preference of the air force for a modern aircraft over a local product modeled on earlier versions at times contributed to the slow progress. India's decision to purchase multi-role combat aircraft from Russia, in the wake of the Hank Brown amendment that enabled Pakistan acquire advanced weapons and platforms from the US, has put further pressures on the resources available for the LCA.

Many Western observers have been skeptical as to the rationale behind the LCA, as well as about India's ability to successfully assemble and produce an aircraft suitable for the future needs of the air force. Portrayed as India's white elephant, the LCA has come under severe criticism from abroad, claiming that the project, like other Indian aeronautics projects was "chaotic and subject to flux, cost overruns, technological slippage and time delays." Yet another critic estimated that, if and when completed, the LCA "[would] be about one-third the size of a US-built F-22, half that of the French Rafael, and about the same size as Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen." According to another estimate, when fully operational the LCA would be "neither indigenous nor state-of-the-art." Its dependence on the West for critical technologies would be an impediment and would subject it to prevailing political considerations. With its excessive dependence on western companies, the success of the LCA depends on the 'good will' of four Western governments namely, the US, UK, France and Sweden.

Amidst the continued uncertainty over the delivery schedule of the LCA, in December 1996 Abdul Kalam disclosed that the DRDO planned to develop its new Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) that would "mainly carry out deep penetration" operations. According to LCA Project Director, Kota Harinarayana, the MCA only reached the stage of the "conceptual design study". A start now would mean producing the aircraft within 15 to 20 years. Simultaneously, the DRDO unveiled its AWACS based on Avro HS-748 aircraft, and according to the DRDO, no foreign help was sought in developing this early warning system. Though reaction and assessment of the 'demonstrator', which took a decade, was anything but complementary, the demonstration of the Airborne Surveillance Platform was a formal acknowledgment of the existence of such a program. Its rejection of the Phalcon due to technical deficiencies should not be seen as the final word on the subject as one DRDO official admitted that "What is being considered from our Israeli friends is to share their expertise in our development project."

The difficulties confronting the LCA are similar in many ways to the hurdles that Israel endured in pursuing and eventually abandoning the Lavi project. At the height of the Lavi controversy one Israeli commentator pondered on whether a small country, which relied on foreign aid, could "afford to compete with the big powers in such an expensive field without courting economic collapse and without exceeding the limits of reason in a no less sensitive area, namely its political and technological autonomy." Some of the arguments are valid for India, too. As a country with a limited military-industrial base, doubts have been raised both domestically and outside India over the wisdom of developing a complete system as important as a fighter aircraft. Like the Israeli experience, the cost of the project has been subject to vague and unscientific estimates leading to periodic cost escalation. The government's inability to find regular and continuous funding has slowed down the project and even before the first test flight, the cost of the LCA project to the state exchequer has reached about $600 million and has come under severe criticism from parliamentarians.

Unlike the Lavi, India's endeavor has not received political endorsement or financial support from any foreign power and hence has been relatively less susceptible to external intervention. Likewise, the successful completion of the project depends entirely on India's ability to find substantial financial resources to procure or develop the required technologies. Moreover, unlike the Lavi, the LCA depends on the US for its engines only for the initial phase: In a significant move the DRDO undertook the ambitious task of designing and developing GTX 35 VS Kaveri engines for the LCA. The detailed drawings of the Mach-2 capable aero-engine were completed in 1992, the engine is expected to be tested aboard the LCA in the year 2000 and would become fully operational three years later. While the first two prototypes would use GE-F2J3 engines, Kaveri would be used for the remaining five LCA prototypes. The option of the US engine during the initial phase was adopted "to avoid any uncertainty that could arise in the behavior of various systems and airframe."

Israeli experience would be particularly useful in areas such as avionics, airframes and the incorporation of engine and weapons into the airframe. While a number of key Lavi technologies were obtained from Washington and hence are subjected to American laws and restrictions, a substantial portion of technologies developed during the Lavi phase are owned by Israel and can be easily exported to, or shared with India. In the past Israel reportedly offered and supplied Lavi-associated technologies to countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea and there is no reason why India could not benefit in like manner from Israeli expertise and exports. The question of technology 'ownership' has often been a bone of contention in US-Israeli relations, often leading to accusations of un- authorized Israeli transfer of American technology to countries such as China. For a variety of political reasons, such an approach by the US, vis-a-vis Israeli dealings with India, need not be taken, thus enabling close cooperation between the two defense establishments, which would both significantly reduce duplication on the part of India, and atrophy on the part of the Israeli military establishment.

B. Aircraft Upgrading

As India would still have to wait for nearly a decade before acquiring the first batch of LCAs, the concern of the air force to upgrade its existing aging fleet would still be an issue. Acquiring new aircraft would not only be costlier, but may even be financially prohibitive, since such a move would further reduce the budget for the LCA. For instance, in early 1993 the Defense Ministry argued that until the LCA could enter into service, and with the view to optimally utilize the available fleet of MiG-21 BIS aircraft "it has been decided to upgrade the aircraft by integration of avionics and weapon systems compatible with comparable state-of-the-art systems fitted on other aircraft of [that] class." As result, India signed a $400 million contract with Moscow for upgrading 125 MiG-21s and prolonging their life-span by 15 years.

Meanwhile, in April 1993, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao declared that MiG-21s would be phased out by 2002 and would be replaced by the LCA. However, this would entirely depend on their timely replacement, over a short period, by the DRDO, since the inability to do so would compel the air force to upgrade an additional number of MiGs, or to look for 'temporary' replacements. Besides the ongoing MiG-21 BIS upgrading, the Standing Committee of the Parliament on Defense had recommended that the upgrading of MiG-27 and MiG-29 be given priority, as in the next couple of years a large portion of six squadrons of MiG-27 and three squadrons of MiG-29 are due for upgrading.

The Defense Ministry ruled out the acquisition of a new fighter aircraft, due to financial constraints, and underscored the need for selective upgrading of various combat aircraft. The Parliamentary Standing Committee for Defense wanted priority to be given to the upgrading program for the MiG-21 BIS, MiG-27 and MiG-29, as it presented a cost- effective method for maintaining the operational capability of the existing fleet to meet perceived threats, by modernizing existing aircraft rather than paying the exorbitant cost of the acquisition of a new type of aircraft.

In short, the problems facing the LCA involve the upgrading of the existing fleet of MiG aircraft, and though Israel lost the main MiG-21 BIS contract to the Russians, the upgrading market in India is still large and would involve at least over one hundred later versions of the MiGs before the arrival of the first LCA. It is essential to remember that while India is not among the leading actors in upgrading MiGs, it is not a novice either. State-owned HAL had license to assemble, manufacture, overhaul, maintain, service and improvise MiGs since the early 1960s. HAL, which had obtained certain expertise in the field, has been given the task of upgrading all but two of the 125 MiG-21 BIS at HAL workshops in Nasik and Bangalore. Hence, instead of competing with these firms, the IAI should consider cooperating with them for the Indian market.

C. Missiles and Satellites

Launched in 1983, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program is another equally ambitious yet relatively successful defense program undertaken by the Indian defense establishment in recent years. This project was different to anything undertaken by India in the past, signaling a dramatic change in the way missile research was done in India for it was "a well-funded, broad-based effort, involving not only the defense laboratories but also technical institutions, universities, Defense Ministry ordnance factories, and public and private sector firms." Raju Thomas (a strong critic of the LCA) went a step further and stated that almost every need of the missile program was supplied domestically, including computers, computer software, special alloy aluminum, precision gyro- scopes, rocket propellants and radar.

As the first Indian attempt to simultaneously develop several missile systems, the program involved design, development and production of five missile systems: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) Agni, battlefield support surface-to-surface missile Prithvi, short range surface- to-air missile Trishul, medium range surface-to-air missile Akash and the anti-tank missile Nag. While all other missiles had either completed their user trials or had entered the production stage, Nag "appears to have slipped" and was expected to begin user trials in mid-1998.

The progress of the guided-missile program and the close coordination between Agni and Prithvi, the two most prominent missile systems, is remarkable. The first stage of Agni is based on India's success in satellite launching and the second is "a shortened Prithvi stage, modified for high-altitude operations." Since its inaugural launch in May 1989, Agni has completed three successful test flights. However, following pressures from the US, the Indian government described Agni as a "technology demonstrator", and appeared to have quietly capped the program. No Agni tests were conducted since February 1994, and even the change of government in New Delhi following the 1996 election has not altered this position.

Adopting a missile-in-the-basement posture, Abdul Kalam declared in April 1994 that if and when a political decision is taken, Agni could be made operational within two years. Referring to external pressures he declared that India's defense preparedness was based on perceptions of threat to the nation's security. "We cannot go by the suggestions of other countries on such matters. Can I ask one country to destroy all its nuclear weapons? It is like King Lear asking the waves to stop rolling." Technology embargoes and sanctions such as MTCR have slowed down the missile program, and pressures reached a crescendo prior to the indefinite extension of the NPT which India refused to sign. After a two-year ban on Indian Space Research Organization following the cryogenic engine controversy, the US imposed new restrictions in May 1997 on all "dual-use technology components" on the state-owned Bharat Electronics Ltd., due to its suspected involvement in India's missile programs.

External pressures, in the long run, intensified the process and compelled India to be selective in its approach. The US refusal in the early 1980s to supply supercomputers to India, due to proliferation concerns, has only led to the indigenous development of Anurag. It is recognized that India's "missile-related infrastructure has been developed to the point that it is no longer feasible for outside interests to bring the program to a halt." Likewise, it has been concluded that, while it is possible to question the comparative international quality of the Indian missile program, "the acquisition and absorption of technological expertise...has been more successful than in other areas of military technology procurement."

Israel's need to develop ballistic missiles and its need to export this technology, was the result of the threat to national survival posed by the Arab and Islamic states, who were armed with massive quantities of both conventional and unconventional weapons by other states. Without the need for the Jericho, for example, there would also be no exports. Thus Israel has an impressive arsenal of indigenous missiles including the ship-to-ship missile Gabriel, air-to-air missile Python, air-to-surface missile Popeye, surface-to-surface missile Jericho I and IRBM Jericho II. They were developed and some even deployed prior to India's guided missile development program in the early 1980s, and hence are more advanced and battle-tested. In May 1997, Israel and Turkey agreed to a deal worth $100 million to jointly produce Popeye II missiles while Gabriel missiles were exported to countries such as South Africa and Taiwan.

For quite sometime it was suggested by the Israeli media that certain foreign countries had expressed an interest in 'purchasing' Arrow missile technologies, with countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, South Korea and even the UK mentioned as potential clients.

As a project substantially funded by the US (partly as a compensation for the reluctant Israeli cancellation of the Lavi), such a move would not be easy and in May 1996, Uzi Rubin, Head of the Arrow Project in the Ministry of Defense, disclosed that Israel and the US had signed an agreement arranging a "division of rights" on the Arrow project.

This move was aimed at avoiding erstwhile controversies regarding alleged Israeli illegal and unauthorized sales or transfer of American technology to third parties such as China. In February 1997, the Indian media suggested that India was negotiating with Israel to purchase components and technology of the Arrow. The issue was believed to have been discussed during the visit of a senior Ministry of Defense official earlier that month.

The DRDO began working on the pilotless target vehicle Lakshya. Following launch trials in 1983, it is currently being produced in a limited series. Another aeronautical venture, the Nishant RPV made its first flight test in 1995 and was scheduled to be inducted into the army by late 1996/97. However, production delays and technical snags led the army to look to Israeli-built Searchers to compensate for the delays. It is essential to remember that while Israel has been using and exporting UAVs/RPVs since the Lebanese invasion of 1982, India is a late entrant in the field. Both countries however would have to find ways of overcoming the impediments over Israel's membership in the MTCR. While Agni and Jericho II come under the limits set by the missile cartel, other missiles including Prithvi and RPVs are beyond the preview of its limitations.

If Israel has more experience and expertise in missiles and RPVs, India enjoys lead-time in space technology. Established in the early 1950s, the Indian Space Research Organization has been primarily concerned with the civilian space program. The use of space technology for military purposes has been a recent phenomenon and the Agni missile is based on a successful satellite launch vehicles used to launch civilian satellites.

D. Main Battle Tank (MBT)

For over two decades the DRDO has wanted to design, develop and produce the main battle tank Arjun, which would replace the license- produced Vijayanta. Commissioned in 1974, the first prototype was to have been ready by 1980 and was to have replaced the Vijayanta by 1985. However, as the project design was finalized only in July 1996, a parliamentary committee felt that the delay of approximately twenty four years rendered the production of the Arjun MBT unjustifiable."

The first technical trial of Arjun began in 1988 and user trials began six years later. Based on 20,000 km trials under varying terrain conditions, the army proposed ten 'basic imperatives' for improving the performance of Arjun, including improved accuracy of the guns and enhanced cruising range. As a result the government cleared a 'limited series production' of Arjun, and in June 1997 the army opted for 100 Arjun, expecting the first tank to be due in 2002. Besides Arjun, which would eventually replace 1,700 Vijayanta tanks, India is planning to upgrade a similar number of T-52 tanks.

In all these four areas, namely the LCA, aircraft upgrading, missiles and MBT, India has been pursuing some of the most ambitious, expensive technology-oriented programs ever undertaken by a developing country. If one adds the space dimension, where India plans to launch by the year 2000 a Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) capable of placing a two-ton satellite in orbit, the ambitions of the DRDO can be seen as astronomical. Most of these programs "have experienced major cost and time overruns and it would not be surprising if the dates currently set as production targets are not met".

Unlike the Lavi, there is no foreign option for the Indian military establishment and it cannot argue that imports are possible and would be cheaper than indigenous endeavors. Even those unsatisfied with the projects, progress and achievements of the DRDO are unable to offer a cost-effective alternative. As such, these endeavors enjoy widespread domestic political support, with various political parties, from the Communists on the Left to the Nationalists on the Right, viewing them as vital to national security.

The ambitions of the DRDO provide a real, meaningful and long-term challenge and opportunity for Israel. Exports have become an integral part of Israel's quest for qualitative edge. However, instead of viewing India as a market for exports to subsidize its defense research and weapon development, Israel could exploit the opportunities provided by India's unprecedented quest for technology and modernization.