Israel-India: A Strategic Relationship?


By Franck Znaty

In last November’s Strategic Assessment of the Tel-Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Yiftah S. Shapir wrote an article entitled “Israel’s Arms Sales to India”. Shapir comments on the recent developments that put Israel as the number one arms supplier to India and looks at where this relationship is heading.

From Kargil to Mumbai
In the first section of his survey, the author talks about the beginning of the relation between the two countries. He writes that after four decades of frozen diplomatic relations, in which New Delhi preferred to foster ties with the Arab world, India’s strategy “changed dramatically in 1991 as part of a comprehensive shift in [its] perception of itself, its economy, and relations with the world.”  As early as 1992, the defense cooperation between the two countries soared.
Shapir describes the two events which contributed over the years to bring the two countries to deepen their ties.

  • The first one is the Kargil conflict of 1999, which heavily changed “the strategic thinking of the Indian military establishment and on the other hand proved to India that Israel is an arm supplier that can be relied on during a crisis,” as Israel was prompt to deliver weapons which New Delhi needed for the conduct of the war.
  • The second event is more recent: November 2008’s Mumbai terror attack was again followed by a review of the Indian defense posture and “led to a sharp rise in defense expenditure in general,” the author notes. As a result, deeper cooperation in the area of intelligence and “counter-terror operations” between the two countries were developed.
Harop UAV
Harop UAV (credit:, 23 February 2009)

While Shapir notes that much of the elements of cooperation remain classified, “the scale of the defense ties can only be assessed through the weapons transactions, which naturally attract for wider coverage”. Such recent deals include the sale of three Phalcon AEW for a deal worth $1.1 billion (India is said to be interested in the acquisition of three more), the $1.4 billion sale of Barak-8 missiles and according to media report the Indian purchase of HAROP attack UAVs.
Shapir notes that the Indian “industry has achieved some significant successes (…) in the field of ballistic missiles and space”.  As such, there is some reciprocity in the defense acquisitions between the two countries as India sold to the Israelis the launch of the TechSAR satellite. But commercial exchanges in that direction remain minimal as Israel remains a fervent buyer of US products as it beneficiates from  US Foreign Military Financing (FMF) aid. Commenting on the Indian industry, Shapir says that “the Indian government does not hide its intention to increase its local acquisitions over the years in place of purchases from foreign sources”.  But in order to enhance its local defense industry, India still needs to expand its technological know-how, as such “India asks that technology be transferred with every large arms deal, and usually transfer of production.”

A Niche Strategy
Israel has managed to comfortably penetrate the Indian defense industry thanks to several parameters which are raised by the author:

  1. First, Shapir notes that “the specialization of the Israeli defense industry has earned its several key niches that give Israel important edges in the areas of electronics and optronics: radar and aerial deterrent systems (…), UAV systems; antitank missiles, advanced air to land arms; and avionics systems for planes…”;
  2. Secondly, unlike some countries, Israel has shown willingness to transfer technology.

Looking towards the future, Shapir however predicts that Israel’s achievements in its defense ties with India will be met by several key challenges in the years to come:

  • First, the Israeli transfer of technology could prove detrimental in the long run, as India could develop its own know-how, thanks to these technology transfers and the many joint ventures established by companies from both countries.
  • Second, despite the process of rapprochement undertaken since the early 90’s, Israel position in India still remains fragile. Shapir estimates that New Delhi still holds “the desire not to provoke the Muslims countries, particularly the Arab world (…) this attitude is reflected in public and political opposition to defense ties with Israel.”
  • Third, Israel’s worthy position in India might be affected because of recent reports that covered the alleged reception of bribes of Indian defense officials from Israeli companies. Shapir states that the sale of Barak missiles is among the contract currently being reviewed by Indian investigators.

The Washington Factor
The author lists another obstacle facing the Israeli defense establishment in its dealing with India, i.e. America. As Shapir observes, “another more important limitation is Israel’s dependence on the United States, and conversely, American interests in South Asia”.  He explains that the “US has a strong position on all aspects of Israeli arms sales to India”, and as such “Israel cannot sell equipment that contains US-made components without obtaining clear permission.” Israel could lose its credibility as a weapons seller, as New Delhi is fully aware that Washington could interfere at any stages of a deal and impose a veto on its implementation.
Moreover, the United States and India are on the verge of deepening their defense cooperation. To this day, Indian ardors for collaboration with the US were cooled down because of Washington’s strict legislation on defense exports. Indeed, this desire for collaboration often clashed with India’s request that any defense deal include the participation of one of its own company trough the creation of a joint venture. But change may be on the way, as following this year’s visit of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “understandings were reached to pave the way for more extensive defense sales in India,” Shapir reports.
On the other hand, the author suggests that prospects are not all gloomy for Israeli defense sales in India, as it has the advantage of being familiar with the local market, “which is very different from Western markets”. Moreover, in the short run, the author says that thanks to the joint already in place, Israel enjoys a comfortable position in India, due to the many interests the Indian government and companies have in these joint ventures. Still, in the longer run, Shapir predicts that Israel’s position is at risk: because of the scale of the American industries and the support they enjoy from the administration, Shapir Believes that [Israel’s] “advantage will gradually decline over the years.”

The Teheran Factor
Another area of concern for Israel is India’s relationship with Iran. There is a great deal of collaboration between Teheran and Delhi stemming from a relationship “which has hundreds of years of history.”  This collaboration, Shapir writes, is multi-folded:

  • Economically, India attaches importance to Iran because of the latter’s resource in oil and also because India needs access to Iranian ports such as Bandar Abbas or Chahbahar for its own commerce with Russia and former Soviet republics.
  • Strategically, close defense ties exist as is shown by the frequent military exercises held by both countries. Moreover, India and Iran share a border with Pakistan, which in the former’s view, Shapir writes: “Iran acts as a base on the other side of Pakistan.”

As far as Israel is concerned, these ties between Teheran and New Delhi could be detrimental as there is “a risk of leakage of information, technical information about Israeli systems, tactical information about modes of operation, and operational tactics…”

The Outcome  of a Window of Opportunity
In concluding his report, Yiftah Shapir believes that while Israel achievements in the Indian market are “a source of pride” it “must not rest on its laurels”.  Shapir repeats its warnings that with the ongoing technology transfer, Israel runs the risk of seeing India being able to develop its own technology as it is a clear Indian objective “to achieve independence in the field of arms”.  Moreover, Shapir estimates that the recent past of frozen diplomatic relations with Israel still has an echo in Indian politics and “it may hasten the processes of detachment,” he warns.
Lastly, the author puts forward the question of whether it is possible to qualify the Indo-Israeli relation as a strategic one. While a close defense relation is part of it, he says it does not suffice to qualify this collaboration as a “strategic relation”. Indeed, he argues that “it must include a convergent outlook on processes in the world, and the knowledge that the partner can be relied on in times of trouble”. In this respect, both countries do not see eye-to-eye on many issues. India is a close Iranian ally and has often a pro-Arab stance on many issues affecting the region. Moreover, both countries enjoy a different relationship with the United States. Israel, on the one hand, is a strong ally of Washington, while India, on the other hand, Shapir says, also has a good relation with the United States, but “it has not given up on its non-aligned identity”.
Overall, the author believes that the two countries do not have a strategic relationship. Rather, he estimates that Israel’s collaboration with India “is an achievement of a window of opportunity” and that in the long run, this relationship will fade away.


***Posted January 11th, 2010