Solidifying India-Israel relations with miltech quid pro quo; 1982 Indo-Israeli plans for Kahuta strike

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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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12 Responses to Solidifying India-Israel relations with miltech quid pro quo; 1982 Indo-Israeli plans for Kahuta strike

  1. Vijaya Dar says:

    Well, if you hadn’t been so critical of everything the Modi government has done since May 2014, it’s possible that the PM would have involved you in his think tank. But your constant carping at every decision doesn’t make for great credentials to advise a PM who is fighting more internal enemies and saboteurs than external. If you wish to be heard you’ll have to accept that the PM’s intentions are always above board and there’s a way to bring execution follies to his notice.

    • Yes, I have been advised to soft-peddle my criticism of PM Modi to get his ear. This is a bit ironic, having been, perhaps, the first among the commentariat (as early as 2011) to see Modi as offering serious rightwing alternative policies! And, if you peruse my writings, you’ll see I have been scrupulous about not attacking Modi (or any other Indian leader, for that matter) personally but have always critiqued, sometimes trenchantly, the policies of the govt of the day. In any case, if ideas are good these should be taken up by the PM irrespective of whether the person providing them is deemed by him and those around him as a “critic”. After all, it is the national interest that’s at stake.

      • Rt says:

        That’s counter intuitive . I think having an ardent nationalist conservative like Mr karnad is exactly the kind of person who should have a say in strategic policy matter in pmo

    • That’s true, but is that a sign of a good leader?
      Didn’t the same attitude caused the fall of Congress. Can a person who wants to be portrayed as a visionary leader afford to allow this boot-licking coterie around him at the expense of such an ardent Nationalist?.

  2. andy says:

    Why doesnt GOI heed good advice? Its beyond comprehension. Without nukes Pakistan would have been settled by now and the two nation theory in the dustbin a long time back, instead we have the spectacle of a restive Kashmir, aided and abetted from across the border and a thriving cross border influx of terrorists, funded by FICN money that seeks to cripple the Indian economy.

    Right from 1947 its been a long story of ‘if only’,if only there hadnt been a partition,if only Nehru had let Sardar Patel handle Kashmir, if only the military was more prepared in 1962,if only we hadnt stopped in 1965,if only the gains on the easter front hadnt been frittered away in Simla,if only India had allowed the Israeli airforce to take out Kahuta etc,etc,etc.Its not as if there weren’t advocates for correct policies ,but its to Indias misfortune that the rulers unerringly chose the incorrect path,blundering along and not nipping trouble in the bud.

    High time GOI got itself a dedicated group of highly qualified advisors on matters strategic, instead of relying on the gut feelings of sundry politicians (that more often than not land the country in a strategic soup)if India is to negate the vicious cycle of ‘if only’ thats been prevalent thus far.

  3. Maximus says:

    Mazel tov! With this essay you hit the nail on the head. Indo- Israeli relationship was forged by Lt.Gen.Jack Jacob, but never discussed in public by the war hero, who had captured Dhaka. Alas, had India decision- makers of his calibre, the bilateral relationship would have blossomed. Israel was ready to diversify out of USAs pincer, but India floundered to recognize this opportunity.J.F.R. was never tempted to relocate to the Jewish state, and once said “Israel has outstanding military leaders of their own, they do not need me”. Conversely and polemically, India’s decision-makers are of bubala or shmuck kind.

  4. armchair says:

    Dear Sir,
    The price of a diesel sub and EI plane P8I seems equal. We ‘re down on subs.Hence increasing subs will close the gap in uw warfare with our adversaries at a higher rate than the plane which is more visible and susceptible to SAMs.One chinese sub surfaced nearby a US aircraft carrrier in the past. Then why are we giving more importance to the planes (planes also required,i agree) than subs? kindly explain.

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      Diesel Subs cost 2/3 times more than a ASW cum EI asset like P8I.
      P8I is not as threatened by SAMs as by its own inability to see the enemy submarines.
      Only reason P8I has been bought is, so that Indian Navy can be turned into a Chowkidar for the entity that wants to be the main fauzdar in this part of the world. Even for a Chowkidar’s role Indian Navy is expected to get trained to advanced US standards.

      P8I has been stripped of all meaningful sensors. Which will be provided only when COMCASA is signed. India has the alternatives to these sensors like XV-2004 (interleaved searchs, ultra high resolution searches). But then nobody bothered to either seek permission to mate these and the growth path of XV-2004 is essentially dead. Death of XV-2004 will become the reason for the signing of COMCASA so we can import the ultra high resolution algorithms of the existing radars on P8I. P8I is mostly useful for tracking surface ships and air traffic.

      In any case if you are serious about ASW then you need corvettes with helos. ASW aircrafts will have as much success in finding sophisticated subs backed by sophisticated satellite intel as they had finding the Malaysian MH-370 and IAF AN-32. Doesn’t help much to fly around like a red-underweared man all the time.

  5. Atul says:

    Bharat,
    Can you please clarify one issue on NFU? Vipin Narang in today’s Indian Express argues that if India has changed its stand on NFU, it should explain this fact in a new official nuclear doctrine. That makes me wonder whether other nuclear powers have issued any ‘official nuclear doctrine’ so far? I tried searching but couldn’t find one !

    • Shaurya says:

      To be clear this Vipin Narang is an academic in a US institution. Does he even speak for Indian interests?

      India only power AFAIK to have a written nuclear doctrine.

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