Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently in India on a five-day visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister since Ariel Sharon’s 2003 visit and the second Israeli prime ministerial visit to India overall.
While the bilateral agenda between the two countries continues to grow broader than ever, defense ties are particularly in the spotlight given India’s recent decision to cancel a $500 million deal with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. for Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). The Indian decision was announced days into the new year and cast a bit of a pall over Netanyahu’s then-upcoming visit.
New Delhi’s decision to symbolically condemn the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the United Nations General Assembly, too, caused some concern, even if it wasn’t entirely breaking with New Delhi’s voting practices at the UN.
But so far, with Netanyahu in Delhi, the canceled Rafael deal and the Jerusalem vote appear to be quickly forgotten. India’s decision to cancel the $500 million deal does leave a few open questions about the near-term future of the Indian Army’s ATGM requirements.
According to the India’s Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat during a recent press conference, the logic behind cancelling the agreement had little to do with any perceived shortcomings in the Spike ATGM’s specifications, and more to do with India’s ongoing interest in building up a robust domestic defense manufacturing base.
Accordingly, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) will be taking a stab at an indigenously designed, developed, and manufactured ATGM. The problem, as analyst Ajai Shukla has noted, is that such an ATGM would realistically (and optimistically) only be ready for induction into the Indian Army in the early 2020s.
The Indian Army’s solution to this is to simply import a capable ATGM. Rawat, in his press conference, made clear that there was no clear preference for Spike, but a government-to-government deal would offer New Delhi an opportunity to seal in an agreement with Israel that could confer other benefits down the road.
While continuing with Spike with a government-to-government deal will find takers among those seeking closer ties between India and Israel—who have had extensive defense commercial ties for years—others in India will recommend looking at the U.S.-made Javelin ATGM and the French-made MPP ATGM. Both systems offer benefits over Spike, but pricing in an off-the-shelf purchase will remain a concern.
As Shukla observes, the Indian Army’s concern about filling an immediate requirement with a government-to-government purchase should sound familiar: it’s precisely what ended up happening at a much larger scale with India’s decision to scrap the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender for France’s Dassault Aviation and announce a deal with the French government for an off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafale fighters.