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IDSA COMMENT

Media takes off on TechSAR, but no takers

December 07, 2007

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has strongly denied news reports that the launch of an Israeli spy satellite aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has been delayed or even cancelled because of US pressure. The news reports, while speculative in nature, have certain inconsistencies that need to be contested. Foremost among these being there is a quid pro quo element by way of sharing of data; since the satellite is wholly Israeli owned and operated, ISRO is only providing a commercial service with no quid pro quo involved. Moreover, the data from this satellite is to be marketed commercially by the American Northrop Grumman Industries, albeit to selected “high-value customers”. Analysts have also pointed out the limited value of imagery from the TechSAR satellite for India since the Satellite Aperture Radar (SAR) technology used cannot penetrate vegetation. In any case, other than the veto over the sale of the Arrow anti-missile system to India, the US has always shown a degree of comfort with the level of transfer of technology to India by Israel. A second reason propounded by the media reports is that the launch has been cancelled following protests by those Arab countries that would come under the ‘gaze’ of Israel’s spy-in-the-sky. This is an unreasonable explanation since in any case the Israelis can use their Shavit launch vehicle or, for that matter, any other third country launcher, not necessarily India’s, to loft the satellite. A third ‘spin’ is that the Israelis had a re-think because of India’s ties with Iran. This theory also flies in the face of the evolving strategic equation between India and Israel, especially in the defence production sphere.

The close defence relationship between India and Israel with the blessings of the US was an outcome of a chain of events primarily revolving around increasing US alarm at China's rising military power, much of which was built on the back of Israeli armaments and which threatened the American military presence off Taiwan. Around the time the US was pressurising Israel to cut-off its arms supplies with China; India was looking for alternative suppliers of defence equipment so as to reduce its dependency on the Russian arms manufacturers.

The defence supplies component of the India-Israel relationship has proved to be a symbiotic one, with India on the lookout for dependable suppliers to modernise its military. Israel, on the other hand, has an export-oriented defence industry with more than 75 per cent of Israeli defense sales going to foreign militaries, with the remaining 25 per cent to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). In 2006 alone, India purchased $1.5 billion worth of equipment, nearly 30 per cent of Israel’s foreign defence sales of $4.4 billion, making it the largest customer of the Israeli military industries. The India-Israel relationship has moved beyond the buyer-seller framework to an integrated one ranging from R&D to customized platforms and products. With the Indian military industrial complex yet to attain critical mass due to systemic problems, the Israeli connection has proved to be a critical one.

Other factors that make Israel a natural partner, particularly when compared with European and US alternatives, include a mutual desire to keep the relationship low profile and the fact that both face similar threats from low-intensity conflict. In addition, Israel has been willing to go the extra mile when it comes to accommodating India’s request for transfer of technology and joint production agreements in an effort to strengthen the strategic relationship. It was calculations such as these that went into the Israeli decision in November 2005 to forego its stated policy of strategic self-reliance and use Indian satellite launch vehicles to loft TechSAR into space.

The media scrutiny over the satellite launch arises from the fact that anything relating to India-Israel connection is viewed with curiosity and intrigue. Such news, however speculative, generates considerable interest given the nature of partisan politics prevailing at the moment.