Israel rushes to India's defense
NEW DELHI - Israel emerged as India's number one defense partner last week when it was revealed that New Delhi had signed a US$1.4 billion deal with the country to purchase a 70 kilometer shore-based and sea borne anti-missile air defense system.
This is among the bigger defense deals between the two countries and the biggest military joint venture by India with a foreign country, overtaking the India-Russia BrahMos cruise missile project.
A senior defense official said the total value of the deal was over $2 billion, with one portion valued at $600 million being hived off to the state-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization.
This makes Israel India's biggest defense supplier, clocking over a billion dollars in new contracts in 2007 and 2008 to overtake Russia.
Russia has been supplying India with $875 million in defense equipment every year. Other main Indian defense partners are Sweden, Britain and France, with the United States an emerging competitor.
"We have a very special defense relationship with India," Israeli Major General Udi Shani, director of the Defense Ministry's Sibat export agency, was quoted as saying recently.
Last August, New Delhi inked a $2.5 billion deal with Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd (IAI) and Rafael to jointly develop a new and advanced version of the Spyder surface-to-air missile system.
In May this year, India should receive the first of three new Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) developed for the Indian Air Force by IAI. The three "eyes in the sky" Phalcons priced at $1.1 billion will be mounted on Russian-delivered Ilyushin-76 aircraft. The deal was inked in March 2004 and has been delayed due to problems in technical integration.
Talks are underway for the purchase of another three AWACS.
India also recently purchased aerostat radars from Israel to spot surreptitious guerilla attacks, such as the one in Mumbai last November where the attackers used dingy boats to infiltrate the city. That deal is valued at $600 million.
The radars will be stationed at strategic points along the western border to issue advance warning against incoming enemy aircraft and missiles.
It is estimated that in the past decade India and Israel have signed defense deals valued at over $10 billion. This is not going to slow down, either.
IAI officially announced the latest defense contract with India last week, more than a month after it was inked. In a statement the company said that "early disclosure was liable to cause material difficulties in execution of the contract, and even result in its cancelation".
There have been allegations of kickbacks in the India-Israel deal, which is a usual accusation that follows any big defense contract. Particularly vitriolic have been the anti-American, anti-Israeli left parties in India.
Both IAI and Rafael have been under federal investigation in India since 2006 for alleged irregularities relating to former defense minister George Fernandes, former navy chief Sushil Kumar and the purchase of a Barak anti-missile ship defense system six years ago. The issue is yet to be resolved.
Political meaning is being attached to the revelation of the sale, given that general elections in India are scheduled for next month. The Congress Party's coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been under pressure to show evidence of stronger security measures in the wake of the Mumbai strikes.
The deal was signed on February 27 - right before the general elections were announced in India and the model code of conduct that debars government moves to implement decisions that may influence voters came into effect.
Security is one key electoral issue in the wake of repeated terror attacks in India in the past few years. However, most observers agree there is an emerging political and military consensus that India's security framework has to be shored up to guard against non-state players in Pakistan launching repeated attacks.
Following the Mumbai attacks that killed nearly 200 people, Indian intelligence agencies have been speaking about rogue terror elements in Pakistan firing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles at Indian cities.
Last month, India conducted its third successful missile intercept test in Orissa, as part of an indigenous plan to build a defense system against incoming ballistic missiles by 2010, which is more powerful than the anti-missile system being procured from Israel.
An effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is considered to be a key weapon in thwarting threats of rogue elements firing stolen nuclear-tipped missiles at India from Pakistan or Bangladesh, a possibility heightened by the bold Mumbai strikes.
India has also been holding talks with the United States, Israel and Russia to hasten the BMD deployment in the past few weeks. The first BMD test was in November 2006, followed by another in December 2007.
After failing the first trial, the new version of the 290km-range supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, which apparently is capable of delivering nuclear warheads, was successfully test fired in Rajasthan's Pokhran range twice last month.
In the context of India's war against terror, Israel, with its expertise in radars and missiles, will be a key player.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)