Planes, Drones, Missiles: How Kargil changed Indo–Israeli Relations

18 January 2015
An Israeli Heron surveillance drone. Despite pressure from the US and the international community, Israel sped up shipment of arm orders submitted by India before the Kargil conflict.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / Stringer

This excerpt from Nicolas Blarel’s The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy (OUP) describes how India turned to Israel after finding itself short of crucial surveillance and military equipment during the Kargil conflict.

In May 1999, large-scale military intrusions from Pakistan were detected by the Indian military and intelligence agencies in the Kargil–Dras sector of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, a Pakistani provocation that escalated into the Kargil war. It took more than a week for the Indian army to understand and estimate the scale of the infiltration, and subsequently to develop a course of action to drive the invaders out. Three weeks after the initial detection of incursion, the Indian army eventually started a counter-offensive, code-named Operation Vijay, which eventually drove the invaders behind the Line of Control by July 1999. The conflict was unique as it was one of the rare oppositions between two nuclear-weapon states. The Indian army had to promptly adapt to this new style of low-intensity warfare with all the doctrinal and technological changes it implied. In June–July 1999, the Indian forces restricted their military operations to the Indian side of the LoC to limit the potential of escalation of the conflict.

In spite of the final diplomatic and military victory, the Kargil crisis led to an important debate over India’s defence and intelligence failures. Pakistan’s phased infiltration in forward outposts in inhospitable and elevated terrains revealed the Indian’s military unpreparedness in both spotting and preventing the incursions across the LoC, as well the lack of training and experience in mountain warfare. It was in this enabling context of reforms that the BJP and especially India’s security establishment chose to expand its cooperation with Israel. The Israeli army had an important experience (and the consequent technology) in coping with border-control, counter-terrorism, and limited wars. There is not enough evidence to claim that Israeli assistance helped India ‘turn around’ the situation during the Kargil war against Pakistan. While Israel was one of the rare countries to directly help India during the short conflict, the short duration of the conflict did not result in an immediate increase in military supplies from Israel. The qualitative changed happened after the crisis: the Kargil conflict revealed some important deficiencies in India’s intelligence and military forces. In its efforts to remediate these problems, the Indian security establishment turned towards Israeli assistance and technologies.

In a first phase, Israel proved to be an important and reliable partner during the Kargil conflict by quickly providing India with necessary mortar ammunition and apparently also with laser-guided missiles for its fighter jets. When trying to provide close air support to ground troops, the Indian Air Force faced problems of limited sight of the Pakistani bunkers, inaccurate unguided missiles, and the explicit instruction not to cross the LoC. To adapt to these constraints and specifically to correct the problem of accuracy in the Kargil heights, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis chose on 30 May to commit IAF Mirage 2000H fighters capable of delivering laser-guided bombs to ground attack operations. According to multiple accounts, India was promptly provided with laser-guided missiles for its Mirages from Israel. In June 1999, the precision strikes from the upgraded Mirage 2000H limited the advantage of the Pakistani soldiers based on high positions, and helped turn around the conflict in India’s favour. In addition, the shooting down of an IAF Canberra PR57 by a Chinese-made Anza infrared surface-to-air missile on 21 May had also exposed the limitations of India’s traditional photo reconnaissance platforms. Despite pressures from the US and the international community, Israel agreed to speed up shipments of arms orders that had been submitted before the Kargil developments, including the delivery of Israeli Heron and Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicless. UAVs for high-altitude surveillance represented a less costly and more effective alternative which provided more accurate imagery for ground troops and fighter jets. At a time when India was still facing technological exports sanctions, Tel Aviv’s quick reaction to India’s request for military assistance further increased its credibility as a reliable arms supplier.

In a second phase, the Kargil crisis brought to light many structural problems in India’s defence capabilities. The Kargil conflict created a favourable environment for key policy reforms. The first important lesson was the intelligence failure. The primary public document that addressed this issue was the India Kargil Review Committee Report which documented the shortfalls of Indian intelligence equipment and the inherent deficiencies of the Indian intelligence apparatus in anticipating the cross-border Pakistani infiltrations in Kargil. In the report, the intelligence agencies were described as relying too heavily on the notion that the inhospitable region and the lack of previous Pakistani infiltration in that area precluded any type of incursion into Kargil. There was hardly any surveillance in this part of the LoC. The conflict therefore precipitated military, intelligence, and technological efforts to prevent a new Kargil-like scenario. The second lesson was that India needed to improve the quality of its military arsenal in conjunction with the evolving regional threats and Pakistan’s purchase of American material.

To address its surveillance and reconnaissance problems along the LoC, the Indian military establishment emphasized the need for drones. It was argued that the intrusions could have been spotted earlier if India had regular UAV surveillance of the border. By 1999, India’s indigenous efforts to build UAVs for reconnaissance missions had yielded poor results. The Lakshya and Nishant UAV models were either produced in limited models and or were still undergoing flight tests. Production delays and technical problems led the Indian army to consider the more sophisticated and higher range Israeli Searcher and Henron drones as an alternative to compensate for the delays. India had also been unsuccessful in developing an Airborne Warning and Control Systems capability. An important setback occurred when an Avro aircraft with an indigenous airborne surveillance platform was tested and crashed in January 1999. Following the crash of this prototype, which killed eight scientists and the aircrew, the project was suspended. In the absence of effective AWACS capabilities, the Indian army and the Indian navy relied on UAVs for airborne surveillance. The Indian military estimated it would need 100 tactical UAVs in the next five years, in addition to 200 UAVs for low- and high-altitude operations. In 2001, the Indian ministry of defence negotiated a fixed price deal with Israel Aerospace Industries at $7.2 million per UAV. In 2003, India signed another $130 million contract with IAI for 18 Heron UAVs and ordered 16 additional ones. IAI also partnered with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for maintenance purposes. The absence of AWACS technology also encouraged the Indian government to discuss with Israel the possibility of purchasing a Phalcon platform. India also reportedly acquired from Israel sophisticated sensors to monitor cross-border infiltration. In the aftermath of the Kargil war, the Indian army has maintained a constant surveillance of cross-border infiltration through its Israeli-made Searcher and Heron and sensing equipment.

While the Kargil conflict was mostly an air and ground battle, there were also some important navy manoeuvers in the Arabian Sea. While in the end there were no direct confrontations, the Indian navy was put on high alert as a result of Pakistan’s build-up and prepared for a blockade of the Pakistani ports to cut off Pakistani supply routes and to force a Pakistani withdrawal from Kargil. The preventive naval deployment apparently deterred Pakistan from embarking onto naval operations but also led to reflections within the Indian navy leadership over the implications of large-scale fighting. The Indian navy had apparently been concerned that Pakistan could have used its American-made Harpoon missiles if it felt threatened by a naval blockade. The Indian navy also argued that there was urgency as the indigenous anti-missile defence (AMD) systems had failed to become operational. Consequently, a deal to purchase AMD system from Israel was negotiated by a committee headed by Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash, chief of naval personnel at naval Headquarters. Kargil and its implications for future navy operation paved the way for the purchase of the nine Barak-I AMD systems and missiles from IAI and Rafael in February 2001.

The purchase by the NDA government of the Barak-1 vertically launched surface-to-air missiles from Israel in the late 1990s marked a significant technological and financial breakthrough in defence cooperation. The $270-million contract was also the biggest defence deal to date between the two countries. By the early 2000s, the Indian defence establishment had convinced the government that Israel could effectively meet India’s emerging requirements in such niche technology areas like UAVs, surveillance systems, and anti-missile systems. In parallel, the DRDO had not been able to deliver operational UAVs, AWACS, and AMD systems to cope with emerging threats. Consequently, the Kargil conflict and its immediate aftermath were a decisive window of opportunity for the Indian defence establishment to present the Israel defence industry as a viable and positive alternative which could promptly deliver in the fields where India had pressing security concerns. The existing ideological and institutional obstacles to increased defence cooperation were gradually diluted.

Excerpted from The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy by Nicolas Blarel, from the Oxford International Relations in South Asia Series. Reproduced with the permission of Oxford University Press.

Nicolas Blarel Nicolas Blarel teaches at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, Netherlands.

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