By Bharat Karnad
The Israeli President Reuven Rivlin begins his six-day trip to India today the first by the Israeli head of state. This is a lead-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long awaited state visit in January 2017 to Israel to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of regular diplomatic relations between the two countries by the Narasimha Rao government. Time to recall just how much progress has been made, and how much more needs to be done, in forging strong Indo-Israeli strategic links. I first wrote a major two-part op-ed article for the Hindustan Times in 1982 exactly a decade before GOI girded up its loins to do just that the usual lag time for New Delhi to do anything, advocating an upgrade in the bilateral ties from the one-way Consular level with just an Israeli Consulate in the Peddar Road area of Mumbai but no reciprocal Indian presence anywhere in Israel to normal ambassadorial representation. For the Israeli diplomats posted in Mumbai it was a high-risk station that also fetched career rewards, so some of the best in its foreign service corps opted for three years of inconvenience and hemmed in life with a lot of security.These articles possibly the first in the public realm were met with shock, a flurry of barely concealed abuse, and the Left-leaning policy Establishment grandees, such as the old Indira Gandhi adviser and Congress government heavyweight from the 1970s, PN Haksar, adopting a high moral tone in their attacks.
Other than the obvious strategic benefits, the main line of my argument I had made was that giving away anything free, especially something so precious as diplomatic support for the Arab causes, including Palestine for which last the Arab states did nothing except show eagerness to fight the Israelis to the last Palestinian not even maintaining a semblance of neutrality on the Kashmir issue when Pakistan regularly raised it in forums like Organization of Islamic Countries. Such genuflection, far from serving the national interest only generated contempt for India in the Arab world and demands for more give by Delhi! A year later, I was reporting on the Israeli military advance into Beirut where I met with the Israeli army chief Moshe Dayan’s legendary MilIntel head from the 1956 Sinai Operations, retired Major General Aharon Yaariv then in Reserve and called up for duty, at the Kiryat Shimona kibbutz just this side of the Israeli border. It was Yaariv who told me over breakfast the story of how Indira Gandhi had first approved of an Israeli strike on the Pakistani uranium enrichment centrifuge complex in Kahuta in 1982 with Indian help but called off the raid just before it got underway.
The Israelis who had taken out Saddam Hussein’s Osiraq military reactor in Baghdad in June 1981 had planned the attack, according to Yaariv, thus: A sortie of six IsAF F-16s and like number of F-15s flying combat air patrol (CAP) were to come in from Haifa over the southern Arabian Sea into Jamnagar where the crews would rest up for a couple of days, and tie-up last minute, minor, changes in the flight and mission plans.
The IsAF strike and CAP aircraft would then take off from Jamnagar, fly over central India and into Udhampur where previously IsAF C-17s would have landed with a cargo of deep penetration and detonation weapons for use on Kahuta targets. The Israelis had warned GOI that their aircraft would fly with Israeli roundels and entirely unmasked because, as Yaariv put it, they didn’t trust the Indians, who would be the principal beneficiaries, to not claim that it was a solely Israeli initiative in which India had no role whatsoever.
“We wanted India to be fully involved and implicated and to share in the responsibility for the mission”, he told me, even though the IsAF could have carried out the entire operation all by itself using aerial refuelers as was done on the strike on the PLO HQ outside Tunis (over 1,500 miles away) in 1985.
The plans were thereafter for the Israeli F-16-F-15 complement to top off their tanks, upload the special heavy ordnance on fuselage points and take off, flying in the lee of the mountains to avoid Pakistani radar detection, before coming into the open for the final bomb run over target two F-16s at a time drooping their loads and egressing as the F-15s circled overhead to take care of any interference by PAF air defence aircraft. The attacks completed the F-16s would continue flying west, out of Pakistani airspace, before dipping southwards and returning to home base. The IsAF aircraft breaking out into the open from the mountain shadows would not have afforded PAF and Pakistani RBS-70 anti-aircraft guns (ex-Sweden) enough time to erect and fire away. (Wrote about it first in the Sunday Observer in the mid 1980s.)
This was the last time India had the chance credibly to stop Pakistan from crossing the N-weapons threshold. Predictably, we fluffed it Indira losing her nerve. Or, perhaps, because Washington got wind of the mission and pressured Indira into halting it. An attempt to revive a purely Indian attack mission in 1984 when Air Cmde Jasjit Singh was Director, Ops (Offensive), in Air HQ, didn’t even get off the ground this time Rajiv Gandhi, who had taken over from his assassinated mother, negativing it. (These ops and the politics of the planned strikes analyzed in my books ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ and ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’.)
The country has paid dearly and repeatedly for the absolute risk aversion in-built into the Indian govt’s thinking and policies, until now when the Indian military, and particularly the Indian Air Force, too is infected by it, and has become fully risk-averse. Consider how in 2001 after the Pak terrorist attacks on Parliament and again post-terrorist strike in 2008 on Mumbai, the IAF was asked if it could retaliate instantaneously. On both occasions the CASs (Anil Tipnis & Fali Major respectively) at the time begged off, pleading various excuses. And, as retailed by the then COAS Gen Ved Malik, how Tipnis at the start of the Kargil ops went “bureaucratic”, saying he wouldn’t respond to the army’s request for air support w/o proper authorization!
But, I have gone off on a jag. To get back to India-Israel relations: In the early 2000s, had sent a paper to the then Israeli Home Minister Uzi Landau detailing why India and Israel should mesh their arms industries in a mutually beneficial arrangement involving Indian capital for joint advanced weapons R&D in Israel and Israel transferring the production of bulk conventional military weapons systems Uzi LMGs, tanks, artillery, etc. to India that both Indian and Israeli militaries would off-take, thereby building up trust and intimacy of the closest kind to benefit both.
Landau, on a trip to Delhi in those years, visited with me and we talked some more. He was especially taken by my idea of the quid pro quo that investment of Indian capital in developing sophisticated armaments and then sharing them with India would enable Tel Aviv to be less reliant and therefore freer of the strings Washington often pulled to hamper and hinder Israeli foreign and policy aims (most recently by denying for a long time the Elta 2052 computer for the Indian indigenous ASEA radar project, permitting only the less powerful Elta 2032 to be put in it). Had also pushed this with Jaswant in MEA, and with others in the 1st BJP govt. However, for reasons unknown to me this idea never took off, possibly because of Delhi’s apprehensions or, more likely, because Tel Aviv discovered that India is better as a paying customer than as technology development partner and financier sharing in the IPR for the military tech so developed. Whatever the reason, this eminently strategic idea remains uncultivated. As always, when good ideas are not followed up, India is the big loser.
It is an idea Modi can take up with Rivlin and if seriously proposed is something Tel Aviv will be hard put to turn aside. There’s another idea I had advocated before the Vajpayee govt closed down for the nonce the N-testing option with the “voluntary test moratorium” which Modi, unfortunately, reaffirmed two days back in the N-deal with Japan close cooperation in the nuclear weapons field. India can offer Israel the underground testing facility to fire off its weapons, because it simply doesn’t have the vacant space for this purpose. It last did it in 1979 in Pelindaba with the help of the White-ruled South Africa. And India would gain from sharing knowledge in weapon/warhead miniaturisation, etc. something seriously for the Indian govt to consider. Modi will have Rivlin’s ear. Now Cyber and Space have opened up as areas of intense cooperation. There’s lots of it ongoing, it is true, in the field of micro-satellites for low earth orbits and tactical intel, etc. But not nearly enough in the Cyber security sphere where India, despite its software strengths, is lagging well behind the leaders. More on this some other time. Unless India begins relentlessly and remorselessly to think strategic and act strategically, the country has no hope of making a mark in the world.