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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 20, May 2, 2009

India-Israel Defence Nexus Deepens

Wednesday 13 May 2009, by Ninan Koshy


The launching of an Israeli made satellite on April 20, 2009 came close on the heels of an opaque missile deal of India with an Israeli company under investigation both in India and Israel, raising further questions about India’s Israeli ties and its implications. A.K. Antony, India’s Defence Minister, found it hard to answer questions related to these deals while campaigning for the Congress party in the Parliament elections in his home State of Kerala.

India signed a massive US $ 1.4 billion deal with the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the supply and joint development of medium-range surface-to-air missiles (MRSAM). The deal signed on February 27, 2009, just two days prior to the notification of elections to Parliament, was wrapped in secrecy till the Israeli Aerospace Industries officially announced it. The company explained that “early disclosure was liable to cause material difficulties in execution of the contract and even result in its cancellation”, according to the Israeli business daily Globes. The company has claimed that the Indian Government wanted the signing of the contract to be kept secret.

Once the deal became public, a host of questions has been raised. A number of defence experts believe that there was no need for such a missile deal, as India already possesses a more powerful missile in the same class—the advanced air defence (ADD) missile, part of India’s anti-ballistic shield. The deal ignores the success of the ADD missile, which could be deployed as a SAM and used exactly like the Israeli MRSAM. There is criticism this will adversely affect research and development of this indigenous technology.

Procedural and legal questions are raised in the light of the guidelines established by the Ministry of Defence itself regarding Israeli arms companies, especially the IAI. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is continuing its probe into dealings with the company especially related to the purchase of the Barak missile system in 2000 from IAI and Rafael, another Israeli arms firm, naming former Defence Minister George Fernandes and then Navy Chief Sushil Kumar. It is known that bribes were paid to clinch the Barak interceptor deal and there is evidence of remittances paid by the Israeli IAI. But the CBI has been going slow on the case apparently under political pressure.

An order issued on October 3, 2008 “with the approval of the Hon’ble RM (Raksha Mantri, Defence Minister)” laid down details about how to handle the IAI and Rafael. In dealing with them, the Defence Ministry order said: “Tenders in which the two firms were the only competitors should be withheld. Tenders in multi-vendor deals could be given to the two firms but they should have to be withdrawn if the CBI files any chargesheet.”

In giving contract to the IAI, these are precisely the guidelines that have been breached, as the IAI was the only competitor for the MRSAM deal. From the beginning only the IAI was considered for the deal, clearly violating the guidelines. Washing his hands off the decision not to invite global tenders for the deal with the IAI, Minister Antony, in an interview to a local TV channel India Vision in Kerala, seemed to suggest that the procedure was laid down by his predecessor Pranab Mukherji, currently the Foreign Minister. Even at his evasive best, he had to admit that there was tremendous pressure on him from the armed forces to clear the deal.

In fact the two firms should have been blacklisted. In the past when allegations of corruption and about the involvement of arms dealers have cropped up, the government moved quickly to blacklist the firms involved. That was what was done with Bofors, HDW and Denal even before FIRs (First Information Reports) were filed against them. The CBI lodged an FIR in October 2006 naming the IAI as accused besides naming the Delhi-based arms dealer, Suresh Nanda, and his family members as agents of the Israeli IAI and Rafal corporations. The question —why was the IAI not barred from further contracts till the case was disposed of?—remains unanswered.

In an exclusive report Haaretz the Israeli daily on April 5 (“The man who bribed Indians for Israeli arms sales”) said: “Recent reports claimed that Sudhir Choudrie and another Indian arms dealer, Suresh Nanda, shared a nine per cent commission of the latest arms deal, for 2000 ground based version of the Barak missile.” Rules in India forbid commission to agents and all deals are expected to be conducted directly without middlemen between companies and government.


As the controversy on the deal raged in India, an article in the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post on April 2 came out with a strange explanation for the opposition to the deal, quoting senior defence officials in Israel. “Muslim political parties in India as well as Russian and American defence companies are suspected of working behind the scenes to torpedo a $ 1.4 billion deal signed recently between Israeli Aerospace Industries and India for the development of a missile defence system.” The defence officials said: “It appeared that pro-Muslim political opponents of the New Delhi Government as well as competing defence companies from around the world were spreading rumours of financial irregularities to damage Israeli-Indian defence ties.” Israeli officials said that it was possible that Russian companies were also working behind-the-scenes to scuttle the deal.

The unnamed high officials of the Israeli defence establishment found an Iran factor also. “The Muslim opposition to the deal,” the officials said, “could be backed by Iran which last year tried to thwart the launch of an Israeli spy satellite from India.” While there is no evidence of any Muslim opposition in India being supported by Iran, it is true that Iran legitimately raised questions about the implications of the spy satellite.

Israel’s spy satellite, launched by India in the third week of January 2008, has considerably enhanced Israel’s intelligence gathering capacity. The launch of the Tecsar satellite, also known as Poliaris, opened a new stage in India-Israeli strategic relations and added a new factor in the complex security scenario in the Middle East. In reporting on the event, the Israeli media highlighted the strategic significance of the satellite in relation to Iran. The Haaretz reported on January 21, 2008: “The sophisticated new spy satellite could boost intelligence gathering capabilities regarding Iran.” The satellite “enables Israel to establish a new point of view in space allowing it photographic angles and reception of Iranian communications which were unavailable in prior satellite launches”, the daily continued. Indeed Iran had every reason to complain but it was ignored by New Delhi, playing its assigned role in the US strategy to contain Iran.

India lauched an Israeli-made spy satellite from Sriharikota near Bangalore city in the southern State of Karnataka on April 20. It is in a bid to keep a twentyfour-hour surveillance on its international borders, news agencies quoted Indian defence officials. The 300 kg radar-imaging Israeli satellite was launched via India’s indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and it will be positioned 500 km above the Earth. The satellite will help India track infiltration of militant movements on its borders with Pakistan and inside the country. It could capture the images even under clouds and transmit them to the country.

As in the case of the Israeli satellite launched in January 2008, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), responsible for the launch, has officially labelled the satellite a tool for “disaster management”, an innocuous exercise.. The launching of the satellite in January 2008 had been explained by the same agency as “utilising its advanced technological capacity to place satellites in orbit”. The ISRO deliberately had underplayed the strategic and political impli-cations of the launch. The reluctance of the ISRO to reveal security related aspects is understandable, especially at the time of elections, but on dealings with Israel it appears that the Indian public has to rely on Israeli sources to know what is happening.

In this case Israeli sources clearly stated that it is a “radar imaging espionage satellite made by Israel”. “The launch will mark a new phase in the alliance between Israeli Aerospace Industries and New Delhi,” it is claimed. Again, it is the same company which is under investigation both in Israel and India. The acquisition of the spy satellite was fast-tracked after the Mumbai siege last November. The Indian security establishment was impressed by the Tecsar and wanted for itself a satellite capable of monitoring developments especially in its neighbourhood. In this case also Antony skirted questions, declined to identify his Ministry as the end-user and suggested that questions may be directed to the ISRO. The Leftist parties in the country have mounted a fierce attack not only on these particular deals with Israel but the whole gamut of India-Israel strategic, defence, counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation much to the embarrassment of the Congress party during the elections.

In 2008 Israel surpassed Russia as the main defence supplier to India after breaking the $ I billion mark in new contracts signed annually over the past years. Israel is not, as Minister Antony claims, just one among 45 countries with which India has defence deals. A Jerusalem Post article on February 15, 2009 had a screaming headline: “Israel now India’s top defence supplier”.

“We have a very special intense relationship with India. It is now moving toward joint development of equipment. There are several projects in the pipeline,” Major General Udi Shani, Head of the Defense Ministry’s SIBAT, Defense Export and Cooperation Agency said in an interview to the Indian press in the second week of February. “There is close cooperation and the Indians respect Israeli systems and our experience in fighting terror.”

In fact the opposition in India to the new missile deal is not only because it is dubious but also because of widespread concern about India’s burgeoning support to the war economy of Israel, the chief victims of which are Palestinians. The spy satellite, also made by the controversial Israeli Aerospace Industries fits into this. The defence and intelligence nexus between India and Israel has strategic implications not only for West Asia but also for South Asia especially through their collaboration in the US-led war on terror. While continuing to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause India is subsidising Israel’s war against Palestinians.

Dr Ninan Koshy is formerly Director, International Affairs, World Council of Churches, Geneva and Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, USA, and the author of War on Terror Reordering the World and Under the Empire: India’s New Foreign Policy.

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