JERUSALEM — Israel and India are deepening defense industry ties as Israeli companies seek long-term partnerships through India's efforts to encourage products to be locally produced under joint ventures.
Earlier this month, Israel Aerospace Industries and India's Bharat Electronics Limited signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a new center for technical and maintenance support for India's air defense systems. In addition, IAI on Feb. 5 signed a strategic collaboration memorandum with Indian firms Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Dynamatic Technologies Limited to work on UAVs that will be made in India.
Sales have historically surpassed more than $1 billion annually, making India not only a core country for Israel's defense sales, but also strengthening the bilateral strategic partnership. IAI deals in 2017 included a $2.5 billion deal for Barak 8 missiles and $1.3 billion for surface-to-air missiles, with further deals in 2018, according to the company.
In the wake of the early February defense expo in Lucknow, India, IAI stressed that the Asian nation is one its main partners. "The important partnership is characterized by long-term collaboration, joint development and production, energy transfer, and technical support over many years," according to Nimrod Sheffer, IAI's president and CEO.
The sentiment was echoed in interviews across Israel's major defense companies. Elbit Systems sees India is a strategic market, noting that it is "involved in a range of programs across the Indian defense sector." Rafael Advanced Defense Systems said it has been doing business in India for more than two decades "supporting the Indian Armed forces with state-of-the-art systems."
As part of bilateral relations, trade may be boosted to $20 billion in the coming decades from the $5 billion level at which it currently stands, according to the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. India has been a consumer of Israeli arms exports for several decades, accounting for 49 percent of Israeli arms exports from 2013 to 2017, according to one count at Israeli media outlet Calcalist. And India was Israel's largest purchaser of arms in 2017 alone, though purchases here decreased in 2018.
India is one of the core countries involved in the International Defense Cooperation Directorate under Israel's Ministry of Defense. Known by its acronym SIBAT, the directorate in the government's outreach arm to the defense industry. Of $7.5 billion in defense exports in 2018, 46 percent went to Asia, Globes reported. Israeli companies have not divulged what percent of that went to India, but it is considered to be substantial. Last year's trade numbers are still being calculated, according to Israel's MoD.
"My sense is that both India and Israel see this as a burgeoning relationship, not just arms trade," Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told Defense News. "After Russia, Israel is India's second-largest source for defense [acquisition] — there is a strong sense of shared challenges in the area of terrorism."
Spyer, who has taken part in recent policy discussions and roundtables about India-Israel relations in Tel Aviv and New Delhi, says India admires Israeli defense companies' speed and lack of bureaucracy that has helped their growth in the the markets of air defense and UAVs. However, as the Center for a New American Security think tank notes, "India's weapons procurement is complex and slow in no small part because of India's desire to indigenize production."
'The sky is the limit'
Still, the relationship between India and Israel is evolving. India's economic policy "Make in India" means that foreign companies wanting business in India must work alongside domestic companies and develop products locally. And Israeli companies have indeed partnered with Indian firms via joint ventures.
For instance Elbit established a joint venture with Adani Defence in Hyderbad for the production of Hermes drones in 2018. Adani Defence noted that the 50,000-square-foot facility is the first outside of Israel for manufacturing the Hermes 900 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV. Another joint venture with Alpha Design Technologies was also launched with Elbit in recent years, and the Israeli firm also works with Bharat Electronics in the field of electronic warfare and electro-optics.
And IAI inked MOUs with three Indian companies this month. Bharat Electronics' marketing director said Feb. 5 that the collaboration would enhance its offerings and provide an immediate and optimized maintenance solution for air defense systems.
"The sky is the limit," said Ze'ev Mivtzari, IAI's corporate vice president of marketing for India. "It's a big change from five years ago." Mivtzari, a former Israeli defense attache to India, pointed to the strengthening of bilateral ties seen in recent years.
It's Israel's advanced technology that attracts India as it seeks to upgrade its armed forces. High-altitude and medium-altitude UAVs such as the Heron and multimission tactical Searcher could help India protect its border and sensitive sites.
The same is true for air defense systems. India has acquired the Israel-developed Barak missile line for its medium-range surface-to-air missile requirement. Working with India's Defence Research and Development Organisation, IAI hopes to increase sales of the missile by setting up production lines in India.
"If you want to work in India, you don't just sell products, you need to create your own ecosystem," the Israeli firm said. It's that ecosystem that Israeli companies are targeting. The ecosystem for IAI now includes more than 100 local Indian companies with which it works.
Like IAI, Rafael's interaction with India goes back decades and involves the Asian nation's Army, Navy and Air Force. Rafael's ecosystem is in Hyderbad, where it's focusing on missiles, air defense systems, communications technology and electronic warfare capabilities.
"The common ground for all our programs, with the Army, Navy and Air Force, is modernization. Some of them are upgrades to existing equipment, some are procurement. The Indian market is big and will remain big," Rafael has said. The company currently works with India on the SPYDER air defense system and Spike missiles, and it showcased its sea-based air defense system C-Dome, based on the Iron Dome, at a recent defense expo in Lucknow.
Rafael is also discussing its Drone Dome system, which protects against smaller drones. A recent test showed the system can use lasers to simultaneously stop multiple drones.
In the market of communications systems, Rafael seeks to increase sales of its BNET system is India, and it's also pushing its Typhoon remote controlled weapons system for naval platforms.
UVision, an Israeli company that makes loitering munitions, also signed a deal this month with India's Aditya Precitech to set up a joint venture to manufacture the PALM (precision attack loitering munition) Hero system. UVision's company in India is called AVision.
Israel's MoD characterizes the bilateral relationship as meaningful and involving "vast cooperation" between the two defense industries. The deepening defense and strategic relationship is part of India's multi-decade political and strategic shift, as it moves away from its former link to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and improves ties with Israel and the United States. This complement's Israel's pivot eastward.
But there are differing security priorities between New Delhi and Jerusalem. India is more concerned about China, while Israel is wary of Iran. Though the bilateral relationship has still grown under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and their meetings in 2017 and 2018 that resulted in government-to-government agreements.
The ecosystem built by joint ventures between Israeli and Indian defense companies is complex and involves sensitive defense technology, know-how from which India hopes to acquire to lessen its dependence on foreign defense imports.
Spyer, the analyst out of Israel, said there is bipartisan consensus in both countries to advance the existing relationship. "It is a really important element of Israel's strategic stance and the broader pivot to Asia. No other burgeoning relationship, whether Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore or Japan, has the dimensions, depth and shared interests as India does for Israel."
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.