Israel and the MRCA

In the third week of April 2007, a small team from Israel's MoD and IAI (unannounced, undisclosed) met with a team at Vayu Bhawan and made a classified presentation on integrated fighter avionics and next-generation systems. On May 24, the same team (but with a representative each from Elta and Rafael) came back, and made another presentation. The first meeting was to make a pitch for a host of upgrade programmes that the IAF had asked the Israelis to come forward with possible proposals about. The second, and more interestingly, was to do with the 126 MRCA contract. It is now virtually certain that no matter which aircraft the IAF finally gets from the six-man tender, its brains (everything apart from the multimode radar) will be Israeli-developed and Israeli-built. This would include the complete avionics suite, tactical data and satellite communications systems, head-up display, helmet display, mission computer, digital map integrated warning systems and electronic counter measures (ECM) suites.

In September last year, after Lockheed-Martin said that its contender for the tender would be the heavily souped up and improvised Israeli F-16I Sufa, the Indian Air Force decided that it was time to evaluate Israeli systems. It didn't take them long to send a formal communication to the government in January this year, yielding that any MRCA would be best armed with Israeli avionics and mission systems. In February, I was leaked a photocopy of a page of that communication by a Ministry of Defence source, with most of the information whited out (!). But what remained were a few technical descriptions, subscripted by this telling line: "This would be optimal for IAF purposes in the medium to long term, as our own evaluations and industry reputations have pegged systems built by Israel as by far the most dependable and advanced in the world, more advanced than even comparable US systems which are possibly on offer." This, as you've no doubt guessed, is huge for Israel.

While it's also almost certain that the MRCA deal leans unabashedly towards the US (the delays in the RFP, some say, are for brinkmanship over the nuke deal, but also time bought to carefully engineer the QRs to suit the Americans) -- and assuming that this were true, then it quite simply boils down to the F-16I (the Block 50/52 and the Sufa use the same Northrop-Grumman AN/APG-68V9 AESA radar) and the F/A-18 Super Hornet. This has presented a strange sort of situation for American diplomats. Last year, former US Secretary of Defence from the Clinton Adminstration William S. Cohen (and now a business consultant in D.C) inaugurated Lockheed-Martin's office in Delhi. When asked if he backed the F-16 for the deal, he was completely stumped. And to the hilarious discomfiture of the Lockheed-Martin people, he had to affirm right there on stage that the F/A-18 and F-16 were both "first class aircraft". This didn't go down to well with LM, I'm assuming.

Conversely, both Lockheed-Martin and Boeing complain in private that since they're compatriot firms in the tender, it's difficult for political diplomats to push a single one -- that would be grossly inappropriate. This, even though the US Navy chief of staff recently threw his weight singularly behind the Super Hornet. It would have been a whole lot easier if there was just one American contender. But Boeing, which has had a huge and lucrative history in India, could not be ignored and was therefore allowed to elbow itself into the tender long after RFIs from the others had been received and analysed. Either way, it appears that the IAF wants the government to be firm about the Israeli connection.

India's pronounced and abrupt affinity for Israeli arms over the last few years is a political phenomenon that has a lot of reasonable people obsessed with the direction it threatens to take. Indian commitments to Israeli weapons are enormous, by all standards -- those reports about Israel having emerged as India's second largest arms import source are profoundly true, not in terms of what's been delivered (precious little so far, barring some assault rifles and a few radars), but what's in the pipeline. In December last year, I did an interview with Prof. Yitzhak Shichor of the University of Haifa's Department of East Asia Studies, someone who has written widely on the fresh new Indo-Israeli diplomatic complexion. He said something quite interesting at the time. I'll end with what he told me:

"I am becoming more and more convinced that US attempts to block Israel's arms sales are necessarily, directly or exclusively related to China. There was a piece in Ha'aretz last December (2005) about US attempts to torpedo a large-scale arms deal between Israel and South Korea (valued at $1.25 billion). In other words, US commercial interests are very much at play. If this is true, Israel will find it more difficult to sell arms to India in the future. The deals already signed with India came against the background of the forced retreat from the Phalcon deal with China and at that time it would have been inconceivable to block Israel's military relations with India as well. Now the situation is different. After the forced cancellation of the Phalcon deal with China (as well as the Harpy episode), some experts said that this would undermine Israel's arms sales prospects worldwide since prospective customers would think twice before turning to Israeli arms. Reality proved otherwise. Over the last few years Israeli arms sales still maintained an annual peak of over $3 billion. The loss of the China market is certainly a blow but the India market is at least an equal substitute and there are additional markets such as Turkey and West European countries. Exporting arms is essential for Israel's defense industrial establishment for its survival. Israel exports 75% of its military production, the highest share in the world. The key to this success is technological and scientific innovation which, in certain types and models, outranks the US."

(Photo Copyright Yuval Lapid)

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