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
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.

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

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