It is quite seldom to see customer and seller at loggerheads, but when a customer transforms itself into a seller, it can happen. This is exactly what is currently playing out between India – the former customer – and Israel – the seller - in the border war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Israel: more than a seller, an adviser
Often ignored is the fact that Israel is not an arms exporter but also a military and intelligence adviser. The driving factor behind this secret role has always been to fight against Muslim terrorism and the need to have friendly nations, at a distance from the Israeli-Arab conflict. This strategy gave to Israel a strategic depth it could not have in the neighbouring countries, all of which are, at least nominally, its enemies.
For the Western Singapore against the Muslim Malaysia in the 60’s, Israel has put at its disposal all its resources in terms of intelligence, organization and operational planning, with the result that Singapore has become a faithful and long-standing customer of Israeli weapons. So much so, in fact, that Israel can even count on Singapore to fund some of its secret developments. Recently, the partnership between IAI and ST Engineering Land Systems – the JV Proteus Advanced Systems – unveiled the Blue Spear, a fifth-generation surface-to-surface missile designed to prevail in contested, congested and complex situations, which has been sold to Estonia.
In India, it was again a border dispute between New-Delhi and Islamabad in the Kargil district (May-July 1999) that provided the opportunity for Israel to get into the Indian military establishment: by providing satellite imagery, military advisers and some weapons, including laser-guided missiles (Crystal Maze), needed to strike the Pakistani positions in the mountains.
The operational successes have prompted Israeli weapons’ sales during two decades (2000 and 2010) at a point where Israel was supplier N° 1 or 2 (depending on the year), dethroning Russia and threatening American, French and British positions in the Indian defence Indian market. Israel has been present at every stage of each defence projects, for upgrading electronics, avionics or weapon systems, or for sales of new items to each branch of the Indian armed forces. It was the first example of a deep penetration of defence.
The same strategy has been applied in Azerbaijan, a country bordering Iran, Israel’s long-standing mortal enemy. From 2007 until now, Israel has sold nearly all of its gamut of weapons & platforms to the Aliyev regime, from artillery to offshore patrol vessels.
India: from customer to seller
At the beginning of the 2020s, India has transformed itself from customer of foreign weapon systems to an exporter of its own products. In the 2010s, the strategy was based on offsets and foreign defence investments, mainly through the channels of joint-ventures led by Indian managers but with foreign technologies that were sold to India in kits and then assembled in India and stamped as such as “Indian”.
Under the yearly-revised Defence Procurement Procedures or DPP, India has the way to the “Make in India” policy for defence systems. With the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this policy has been accelerated, and four main embargoes of foreign products (2020, 2021 and twice in 2022) were put in place, even for products that are not produced by the Indian defence industry.
At the same time, India put at disposal of its foreign partners (neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Burma or Sri Lanka or more distant ones in Africa) lines of credits to enable them to buy some of its flagship products (OPVs, MLRS, light fighters).
Nagorno-Karabakh: the confrontation
Sooner or later, the Indian customer would have been at loggerheads with Israeli, the seller. The place of confrontation is not in Indian traditional aera of influence but in Armenia, and more precisely in its Nagorno-Karabakh region.
As a long-standing supplier of its most advanced weapon systems, Israel stands by Azerbaijan, because of Iran. The country is one of the most active stations of the Mossad in the world (with India…) to watch and harass the Iranian nuclear program. Arming Baku is an side benefit, but not the true aim of the Israeli strategy.
But in this clear strategic landscape, who could imagine that India would supply Armenia, putting the bilateral relations in a very “awkward position,” according to the Israeli defence expert Arie Egozi.
India wants to impose itself in the export defence market, and Armenia cannot rely on Russia for weapons, so it is not surprising that both countries have struck a deal. According to the Indian press, Armenia has inked a contract for the Pinaka system, and more widely, is in discussion with India to enhance the military co-operation.
If no Indian or Israeli leader will put the bilateral partnership in jeopardy, the fact remains that Indian irruption into the landscape will certainly make Israel more cautious: after all, India known very well the quality and the efficiency of Israeli weapons sold to Azerbaijan because it bought nearly the same range for its own defence and can advise in its turn Armenian leaders on their strengths and weaknesses.
As for Israel, it finds itself trapped by its former client and its sales geography which now intersects with that of India.