Israel next to consider making weapons in India as ties improve

NEW DELHI —India will host an Israeli defense minister for the first time ever on Wednesday, further strengthening ties between the nations as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to attract more companies to make weapons in his country.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon will visit an air show starting Wednesday in the southern city of Bengaluru, India’s biggest showcase of military equipment. The bi-annual Aero India exhibit is the premier event for nations and companies to get a piece of the $150 billion that the world’s biggest arms importer plans to spend on modernizing its military.

“We are flexible when it comes to transfer of technology,” said Ohad Horsandi, a spokesman for Israel’s embassy in New Delhi. “A while back, Israel and India had shifted away from buyer-seller relations toward a stronger and more equal partnership that can include joint production and co- development.”

Modi has tightened security ties with the U.S. and Israel as he seeks to overhaul a largely Soviet-era arsenal and turn India into a global manufacturing hub. At the same time, India has reduced its reliance on top weapons supplier Russia, which won’t display any weapons at the air show for the first time in at least six years.

“India has always been trying to get rid of a dependency on one supplier,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The Russians are not terribly good at transferring technology.”

The United States will be the top exhibitor at the air show with 64 companies, followed by France, Britain, Russia and Israel, according to India’s Defense Production Secretary G. Mohan Kumar. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and France’s Dassault Aviation will dominate the tarmac with fighter jets, transport and reconnaissance planes.

Modi’s administration has cleared about $20 billion worth of arms purchases since he took power last year. He raised the foreign direct investment limit in defense to 49 percent from an earlier cap of 26 percent in a bid to spur manufacturing.

The $150 billion spending spree through 2027 includes plans for new fighter jets, anti-tank missiles, helicopters and submarines. Pending purchases include 126 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault and 145 howitzer guns from BAE Systems Plc.

On a trip to New Delhi last month, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to a pilot project in which India will jointly produce parts for drones and transport jets. The two countries also will set up a working group to share aircraft carrier technology and develop jet engines.

India last year decided to buy Israeli anti-tank guided missiles and launchers and revive joint development of a long- range missile. The 41 billion rupees ($659 million) of Israeli arms purchases since Modi took power is more than Israel’s total defense exports to India in the prior three years.

Israel has technology designed for a hostile neighborhood, such as missiles and surveillance systems, said Jon Grevatt, Asia-Pacific defense industry analyst for IHS Jane’s.

“It’s an offering that fits the Indian requirement,” he said. “The Israeli defense minister’s visit is significant.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously has said that manufacturers in his country, including those in the defense sector, may produce in India to reduce costs. Modi and Netanyahu held talks in September, the first meeting between Indian and Israeli leaders in a decade, signaling a tightening of ties as they counter threats from Islamic terrorists.

India surpassed China in 2010 to become the world’s largest arms importer and relies on purchases from abroad for 70 percent of its weapons, according to Sipri. Russia and the Soviet Union have been India’s biggest weapons suppliers, accounting for about 70 percent of its arms imports since 1950.

While Indian government data show the U.S. surpassed Russia as the top defense supplier in the three years to March, those numbers are “slightly skewed” because they only account for complete systems and not for the many components India still buys from Russia, Sipri’s Wezeman said.

“Russia is still the most important defense partner for now,” he said. “But there are some big deals in the pipeline, which could change things very quickly.”

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