NEW DELHI — During the first-ever visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel from July 4-6, the two countries boosted their relationship to the Strategic Partner level, but no defense programs were announced. However, Indian Ministry of Defence officials said privately that the purchase of 10 armed Heron TP drones and Spike anti-tank guided missiles for a total of about $1.9 billion is nearly finalized and the deal will be signed this year.

"This historic first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel solidified the enduring friendship between their peoples and raised the bilateral relationship to that of a strategic partnership," according to a joint statement released at the end of talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

Analysts say the strategic partnership involves "non-security areas" like water conservation, agriculture and space.

The leaders did not sign a specific defense pact; however, there was a reaffirmation to focus on the joint development of defense products, including transfer of technology from Israel, with special emphasis on the Make in India initiative.

The weapon programs currently receiving "financial clearance" include the purchase of 10 armed Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries for $400 million, as well as the sale of Spike ATGMs for the Indian Army for $1.5 billion, according to an MoD official.

"The Trump administration has so far not agreed to give armed drones (to India), but Israel has agreed," the MoD official noted.

India's armed forces already use a less advanced version of Heron drones, which for the most part serve in a kamikaze fashion, plunging into their targets, whereas the Heron TP fires missiles at its targets.

Israel had emerged as one of the top suppliers of weapons and equipment to India at deals surpassing $10 billion after the two countries established full diplomatic ties in 1992. Israel also supplied ammunition for howitzers during the Kargil confrontation in 1999 with Pakistan.

Amit Cowshish, a former financial adviser for India's MoD, detailed some of those purchases:

  • Various types of missiles.
  • Aerostat balloons.
  • UAVs.
  • Assault rifles.
  • Electronic suites and avionics.
  • Thermal imaging stand alone systems.
  • Fast-attack crafts fitted with modern surveillance systems.
  • Long-range observation systems.
  • Hand-held thermal imaging systems.
  • High-tech sensors.
  • Portable laser-designating systems.
  • Thermal imaging fire-control systems.

In addition, India and Israel are jointly developing a medium-range surface-to-air missiles and a long-range surface-to-air missile in a deal worth more than $4 billion.

Analysts and officials agree the scope of the defense ties could broaden after Modi's visit.

"There are a fair, few areas where India can seek Israeli military technology beyond drones, such as missile shields, overall urban warfare approach, cybersecurity, building a self-sustained network of spare parts for the armed forces and so on. In other, more critical areas, such as development of the indigenous Kaveri jet engine, it may become more challenging due to the proximity and influence of the U.S. over Israel," said Kabir Taneja, an associate fellow with the Observer Research Foundation's Strategic Studies program.

Make in India

Although there weren't announcements for weapons purchases during Modi's visit, several tie-ups were announced between Indian and Israeli defense companies for thermal imaging-based systems, air surveillance aerostats, strategic electronics and medium UAVs.

Indian private sector firm Garware Wall Ropes Limited signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel's Aero-T for the manufacture and supply of advanced aerostats systems for India.

Indian private sector company Mahindra Telephonics, of Mahindra Group, announced a tie-up with Shachaf Engineering of Israel to jointly develop strategic electronic subassemblies and systems for aerospace, marine and automotive applications.

India private sector business Alpha Design announced a multimillion dollar joint venture with Elbit of Israel to make thermal imaging-based fire-control systems for tanks and helicopters, as well as hand-held thermal night vision devices, with transfer of technology included. The agreement also included the joint development of UAVs, according to Elad Aharonson, executive vice president and general manager of Elbit's ISTAR Divison.

Wipro Infrastructure Engineering — a subsidiary of the India-based IT major Wipro Limited — and Israel Aerospace Industries announced a strategic partnership for the manufacture of composite aero-structure parts to be set up in India.

Analysts in India were expecting Israel to be one of the first countries that Modi would visit when his right-wing government came to power in June 2014.

"Visit to Israel (by Indian PM) had been held back (so far) mainly on the Palestine issue and its attached optics with the Arab world, and New Delhi has weighed these very carefully before Modi's visit to Jerusalem," an Indian Ministry of External Affairs official said.

"The sensitivity of the Arab world, on which India depends for meeting its hydrocarbon needs as well as remittances from the Indians working in the oil-rich countries, has always been a critical factor in India's engagement with Israel. So is the case with the sensitivity of the sizable Muslim community within the country," Cowshish said.

Vivek Raghuvanshi is the India correspondent for Defense News.

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