After shying away for four decades to establish normal relations with Israel, India finally realised the potential offered by the tiny Middle Eastern nation, which emerged as a powerhouse of technological innovation, in the early nineties

New Delhi: With the capacity to fly at an altitude of 35,000 feet and cover an area of 1000 km, the Israeli Heron MK-II drone, deployed on the Indo-China border, points to the story of India-Israel relations coming out of the shadow of old political calculations, driven by similar threats and enemies.

According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report, India is Israel’s largest defence buyer. But the defence relationship between the two has evolved from India simply being an importer to Indian companies collaborating with the Israeli Aerospace Industries.

Though India partners with Israel on various weapons systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones are an area of particular interest.

Israeli Drones In India

The IAI has reached agreements with Indian manufacturers to produce UAVs in India. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited has signed MOU with IAI to help the Indian defence manufacturer to manufacture drones at home. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, the IAI signed a similar agreement with Elcom Systems and Digital Technologies to manufacture drones in India.

More recently, earlier this year the HAL signed an MOU with the IAI to convert civil passenger aircraft into multi-mission tanker transport for air-refuelling with cargo and transport capabilities.

India, last year, bought four Heron drones from Israel to deploy in the Eastern theatre with China. These drones are also now being equipped with weapons under Project Cheetah.

These drones act as eyes in the sky that help strategize according to the enemy movement on the ground enabling effective use of military resources. Acting as force multipliers and also increasingly effective weapons when armed these modern weapons have surfaced as a game-changing factor in modern warfare. Azerbaijan’s use of Turkish Bayraktar drones to secure its first-ever military victory over Armenia in 2020 is a case in point where drones played a decisive role.

After the Kargil war in 1999, India realised the importance of having good quality drones with the ability to fly at higher altitudes in bad weather for surveillance in tough terrain where acquiring intelligence through personnel is difficult and risky. Ever since India has invested in high-tech drones.

Israeli defence Industry has carved a niche for itself as a leader in UAVs. It realised the importance of having eyes in the skies early in 70s after the 1973 war with an alliance of its belligerent Arab Neighbours. Although Israel emerged victorious in the war, the victory came at a huge price. Israel suffered heavy causalities as it could not pre-empt the attack. It started investing in UAVs with surveillance after the war. Its very first drone was the Scout, which was inducted in 1979. It was an unmanned vehicle with a black and white TV camera mounted on gyros which could see only during the day. Today 40 years later it has come far from that.

India-Israel Defence Ties

After shying away for four decades to establish normal relations with Israel, India finally realised the potential offered by the tiny Middle Eastern nation, which emerged as a powerhouse of technological innovation, in the early nineties. Ever since both countries have collaborated in the defence sector, providing Indian defence forces with the capability to multiply their force and provide an opportunity for the local defence industry to develop indigenous weapon systems with technology transfer.

After independence in 1947, India pursued a pro-Arab policy and refused to establish proper diplomatic ties unless a solution was achieved for the Palestine conflict. This policy drove India’s outlook towards Israel for the first couple of decades after Independence. Two factors drove this policy. One external and the other domestic. Externally India was dependent on Arab nations for Oil and the remittances sent back home by Indians working in these Arab countries. On the domestic stage, it was the political calculation to not offend Muslim sensibilities, whom Congress saw as a strong vote bank.

However, laying bare of India’s vulnerabilities in defence after its defeat from the Chinese in the Indo-Sino war of 1962 India realised the importance of prioritising its defence needs.

In 1963, India showed interest in consulting Israeli military experts for military matters. This was followed by a visit by the Chiefs of Israeli Military and Intelligence to New Delhi to exchange ideas with the Indian military’s brass, including the Chief of Army staff.

The relations however still were kept low-key, with India seeking assistance on military matters but not upgrading defence ties. However, in the early nineties with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India lost its biggest defence supplier. This made India look for new suppliers to meet its arms needs.

This, together with the Arab nations taking a pro-Pakistan line on India’s conflicts with Pakistan, cleared the way for India to pursue pro-active relations with Israel. Thus, in 1993 normal diplomatic ties were established between the two countries.

The growing military ties are also helped by the similar nature of security issues faced by the two. Both India and Israel face radical terrorism as a domestic threat and sit next to hostile neighbours with live conflicts that keep the threat of armed conflict ever looming.