By Hari Sud
Column: Abroad View
Published: February 27, 2009
Toronto, ON, Canada, - India's main supplier of advanced military
hardware is Israel. In the 1990s India took a major decision to
procure arms from Israel after its much-touted Defense Research and
Development Organization failed to develop any high-end weapons
To keep abreast of its neighbors, from 1965 till 1997 India purchased
weapons from the Soviet Union, and later Russia - the preferred choice
for the last 40 years as its weapons were cheap, reliable, rugged and
direct copies of advanced weapons in the West. Almost 70 percent of
India's weapons are of Russian origin.
The fall of the Soviet Union halted its secret development and sales
of weapons, thereby letting the West develop countermeasures.
Short of cash, the new Russian Federation from 1990 to 2001 sold its
trade secrets to anybody who wished to buy them. In short, India lost
its advantage with Russian hardware, as China bought everything that
India already had. Also, countermeasures developed by the West for
Russian hardware became available to Pakistan. In short, India was at
a disadvantage on both fronts.
A lot of technology that India wanted from the West was unavailable
because the West viewed India and the Soviet Union as allies, due to
the Cold War attitude prevalent in Washington. Israel stepped in to
fill the breach, as it had enough influence to change U.S. policy on
this issue. It was a win-win situation for Israel and India.
India negotiated its first large-scale contract with Israel in 1997
for the Barak-1 weapons system. This was meant to knock down
Pakistan's Harpoon anti-ship missiles, supplied by the United States.
Since its initial supply of six Barak systems, eight more have been
added and negotiations on a multi-billion-dollar Barak-2 system is in
Prior to the contract, India's defense scientist and former President
Abdul Kalam paid a number of visits to Israel to get help in missile
development. Later India tested its Prithvi and Agni missile systems
to counter Chinese and Pakistani moves.
During the Kargil War in 1999, India received from Israel unmanned
aerial vehicles, laser-guided bombs and other hardware to knock out
Pakistani hilltop bunkers. Israel's support helped India appreciate
its sophisticated electronics and weapons systems.
Russia's former President Vladimir Putin, noting India's declining
interest in Russian weaponry, made offers to sell it more
sophisticated weapons like T-90 tanks, advanced destroyers, an
aircraft carrier and upgrades to existing air force hardware. India
accepted the offers, but Israel had already secured a foothold in
India's lucrative military hardware market.
End-user agreements between the United States and Israel limited the
transfer to India of any U.S.-developed or assisted military hardware
- but Israeli political interests in Washington made short work of all
Showing great interest in the Indian market, Israel in 2002
transferred the highly sophisticated Green Pine Radar to India,
despite U.S. objections. Today this radar is a key component of
India's ballistic missile defense tracking system.
The United States, realizing that Israel will find ways to sell India
its military technology, have now folded up their objections. It took
them more than 50 years to throw out their Cold War-era attitude; now
they are bidding for a US$10-billion Indian fighter contract.
In the last 10 years India's military imports from Israel have included:
• Barak -1 anti-ship missile system
• Unmanned aerial vehicles of various types
• Laser-guided bombs
• Technology for ballistic missile systems
• Green Pine radar
• Spyder surface-to-air missile system
• Aerostat radars
• Service contract to upgrade MIG fighter aircraft
• Electronic countermeasures and air-battle support electronics
The total contract value of these and other purchases is close to US$9
billion. This is a huge amount given that India and Israel established
diplomatic and trade relations only in 1992. The two countries'
intelligence agencies have had contacts for much longer, however.
Military contracts under negotiation between India and Israel include
the development of Barak -2, worth US$2.5 billion; additional AWACS at
$1.8 billion; UAVs worth $500 million; the Arrow anti-missile system
at $4 billion; and miscellaneous electronics worth $2 billion.
Why did India turn to foreign weapons suppliers? Fifty years ago
former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in establishing the Defense
Research and Development Organization, envisioned 80 percent
self-sufficiency in arms by the turn of the century. That dream never
The DRDO had difficulty marrying high concepts with sound engineering.
Thus many major systems on the drawing board did not become potent
weapons. Although it had a staff of 30,000, 51 laboratories and a
US$2.5-billion budget, the organization operated under technical and
critical-component constraints for the last 50 years. It has spent
more than US$50 billion and produced very little.
The army has had many problems with the INSAS rifle developed by the
organization, and nobody wants the main battle tank it developed. Its
many tactical missiles have never met their defined parameters, and
the Kaveri engine for light combat aircraft has been under development
for three decades.
The only successes it can claim are the Prithvi, Agni and Brahmos
missiles, some light combat aircraft and the multi-barrel Pinaka
artillery system. However, it had to import the highly accurate
Russian Smerch system to supplement the underpowered Pinaka.
The DRDO's worst failure has been its inability to reverse engineer
some of its imported weapons systems. Even Pakistan with its low
technology has successfully reverse engineered military hardware.
China reverse engineered the highly sophisticated Russian SU-27
Russia has now fallen behind as a military supplier to India, although
it continues to provide some systems. The renegotiation of already
negotiated deals between the two countries has complicated the
For example, a deal on the Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov is being
renegotiated. The Russians have also refused to transfer technology to
manufacture the T-90 tank gun, although it was part of the contract.
The supply of a nuclear submarine has fallen behind by several years.
Added to this, the quality of Russian hardware and technology is
The Russians have reopened several of their supply contracts and are
exploiting their spare parts supply position to extract more money.
All of this is not sitting well with the Indians, who may over the
next two decades dump them as important suppliers.
Thus in the past 10 years Israel, and now the United States, are
coming on board to supply India with military hardware. There are
distinct differences in the manufacturing philosophies of Russia and
the United States. While Russian hardware is rugged, U.S. hardware is
like a finely tuned sports car; although buyers like its performance
it is three times more expensive to maintain than the Russian. Most
underdeveloped countries still prefer Russian hardware.
In the end, it is good that Israel stepped in to fill the technology
gap India was forced into. Now the Indian military has a distinct
advantage over its adversaries.