Inside India and Israel's 10-year military roadmap

The national flags of Israel and India stand in the campus of the Centre of Excellence for Vegetables at Vadrad village, some 70 kms from Ahmedabad, on January 12, 2018
6 min read
11 November, 2021

In a move to consolidate ties with the newly elected Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar was in Tel Aviv last month.

Taking place at a time when strategic partnerships like the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain could potentially change the Middle East, this meeting had a special significance. During the talks, Bennett spoke about developing “the unique and warm relations between the two democracies”.

Just two weeks later, a landmark 10-year defence collaboration was announced in Tel Aviv at the 15th meeting of the India-Israel joint working group (JWG) by Indian Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar and Director-General of the Israeli Defence Ministry, Major General Amir Eshel (retd).

Over the years, the focus of Indo-Israel ties has been on military-security cooperation, so the development is not surprising. A long-term plan can synchronise their joint capabilities even further.

"Israel has been one of India's top three weapons suppliers for the past five years, accounting for 13% of New Delhi's arms imports"

A history of ties

Official Indo-Israeli military and diplomatic ties were established in 1992 after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as crucial supplies of arms from Russia became disrupted. At that time, Tel Aviv emerged as the most suitable alternate option for ammunition and missile systems for New Delhi, and for Israel it was a lucrative commercial opportunity.

Most bilateral dealings remained top-secret to avoid straining ties with India’s other allies, such as Iran and Arab states on whom it relied for hydrocarbon supplies. Even during India’s war with China in 1962, or with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, Israel provided limited military assistance.

Tel Aviv also helped New Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s murder in 1984 in improving its VIP security mechanism with special arms and training. For most bilateral meetings, Cyprus was the usual secret destination. When India went nuclear with the Pokhran tests in 1998, Israel did not condemn it and defence ties developed further.

Live Story

Military roadmap

“Though India and Israel have been cooperating on intelligence matters, particularly since the China-India border war in 1962, bilateral military cooperation has become very strong after establishing formal diplomatic relations in 1992,” Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Uppsala University in Sweden, told The New Arab, commenting on the 10-year military roadmap.

“Israel’s improved ties with Gulf countries have taken away India’s little hesitation to go for an open alliance with the Jewish nation. India is the second-largest arms buyer globally, and it has been trying hard to move away from its traditional dependence on Soviet/Russian arms,” he said.

“Israel has not only come forward in selling high-quality military equipment to India, but it has also been increasingly engaged in technology transfer and assisting India to achieve self-reliance in arms manufacturing,” he added. “Israel has already become almost the second largest arms market for India. The militaries of both countries also often carry out joint training.”

According to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel has been one of India’s top three weapons suppliers for the past five years, accounting for 13% of New Delhi’s arms imports. Tel Aviv has also had collaborative technology transfers with New Delhi for nearly three decades.

Modi India election - Getty
India is the second-largest arms buyer globally. [Getty]

In the last four years, Israel and India have inked deals worth $3 billion for advanced surface-to-air missile systems. They have also jointly developed the Barak-8 air-defence system which can counter “enemy fighter jets, missiles, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles at a range of 70 km”.

Participating in the Blue Flag international drill, India also sent a Mirage fighter squadron to Israel for the very first time recently. Even before this joint roadmap, Indo-Israel defences were strategically intertwined. For instance, Israeli Pegasus spyware was reportedly deployed by India, but New Delhi adopted an ambiguous silence in response to allegations about its use.

Ostensibly, since India already has defence pacts with the US, Russia, and Iran, the ten-year military plan with Israel was not particularly necessary. But there is a special bond between Tel Aviv and New Delhi, and this alliance might deliver when other defence partners hold back.

Basically, both countries have the same long-term goals, Prof Swain explains. “As India’s relations with Russia have become precarious, India is eager to cement its military cooperation with Israel. India also finds Israel a more trustworthy ally than the USA due to their shared strategic interests in the region,” he told TNA.

“The ten-year defence cooperation plan between India and Israel will further strengthen the bilateral military and security cooperation, which is already robust.”

"The Israel-India defence pact is an attempt by both Jerusalem and New Delhi to diversify their alliance system outside of existing relations with the US, Russia, and others"

Regional impact

In the last few years, India has carved out some space for itself in the Middle East by establishing strategic ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and this deal could be of further help.

“The Israel-India defence pact is an attempt by both Jerusalem and New Delhi to diversify their alliance system outside of existing relations with the US, Russia, and others,” Caroline Rose, a Senior Analyst at the Newlines Institute in Washington, told The New Arab, discussing the regional impact of the defence upgrade.

“It is also a way to bridge an emerging multilateral security framework from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, a development being pushed by GCC countries as well. Particularly in the wake of great-power competition and the US withdrawal from the Middle East region, this is an attempt to build a new, capable security system.”

Live Story

This deal could also affect China. But there is a divergence here, as the status of relations between Israel and China is on an upward trajectory while New Delhi-Beijing ties are extremely erratic with a perpetual standoff in Ladakh on the Sino-Indian border.

Discussing this angle with The New Arab, Lukasz Przybyszewski, president and founder of the Abhaseed Foundation Fund, said that, “This deal is definitely a significant move that will alarm Beijing. Israel’s intentions however are probably much more complex than a simplistic binary choice of partners. The 10-year roadmap could serve Tel Aviv as a bargaining chip for its efforts to stop Chinese military transfers to Iran.”

In Przybyszewski’s opinion, “This plan could succeed, albeit only if civilian aspects of Israeli-Chinese cooperation would be 1) separated from military aspects; and 2) would prove to be sufficiently profitable. In the end, however, the scale would need to be balanced to guarantee military and economic security for Israel and China.”

"In the last few years, India has carved out some space for itself in the Middle East by establishing strategic ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and this deal could be of further help"

He further notes, “Even if both parties will find the Abraham Accords a constructive base for economic security, it cannot be assumed that Israel won't hedge against the threat from Iran through transferring some security-related technologies to China, especially if these would be designed specifically for Beijing’s internal security needs. Israeli backchannel negotiations with China and the US over issues revolving around balancing acts will be now more complicated and challenging than before.”

'Economic quad'

Indo-Israeli bilateral ties also extend to sectors such as technology, economics, security, big data, and health care. Negotiations for a free trade agreement between both countries have resumed and Israel has agreed to join the Indian-led International Solar Alliance (LSA).

On a multilateral level, partnerships like those between the US, India, Israel, and the UAE can also form an economic ‘quad’ to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the future.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi