October 16, 2003

Indo-Israeli Phalcon deal could spark dangerous arms race

Last week, Israel, Russia, and India sealed the deal on the sale of three Israeli Phalcon radar systems to India. Russia was part of the deal since the radars are fitted into the nose of the Russian built Ilyushin-76 (Il-76) cargo aircraft. The U.S. had previously blocked the sale of the radar system to India due to the fragile military balance in South Asia and deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan. This August, however, the U.S. cleared the Indo-Israeli defense deal and the State Department formally cleared the $1 billion radar sale to Delhi.

The Phalcon radar is a highly sophisticated, long-range command and control system with the capability to pick up aircraft signals and enemy transmissions hundreds of miles away. It has significantly boosted Indian intelligence capabilities and is a cause of great concern for Pakistan, as India would able to monitor flights deep into Pakistan's territory. Moreover, the Phalcon is a force multiplier and will give the Indian Air Force a decisive edge over Pakistan as it will be able to monitor and assess beforehand any Pakistani counter strikes in response to Indian air strikes in Pakistani territory or occupied Kashmir.

This deal is definitely going to accelerate the already costly arms race in South Asia. Already, Pakistan has vowed to counter the radar sale to India by exploiting all resources possible. Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali was in Washington, D.C. and appealed to the U.S. to help Pakistan maintain a military balance. The U.S. gave a green signal to the sale of two squadrons of F-16s to Pakistan in addition to refurbishing its current stock of F-16s. This, apart from Pakistan's testing of the surface-to-surface short range missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads earlier this month, is a stark reminder of the continuing arms race in South Asia. Not only are defense deals with either country destabilizing the military balance in the region but are also turning out to be very costly for the South Asian economy.

Israel will first buy the three refurbished Russian Il-76 aircrafts from Uzbekistan before they are brought to Israel to be fitted with the Phalcon airborne early warning radar system. The deal was finalized during Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to New Delhi last month. This was the first ever visit to India by an Israeli premier since they established diplomatic relations with each other in 1994.

Israel signed a similar deal with China three years ago but it had to be scrapped in the face of strong U.S. criticism. The U.S. State Department had strongly objected to the deal as the Phalcon radar could be used to monitor U.S. reconnaissance flights in the region, in addition to dramatically altering the military balance between China and Taiwan.

The primary factor which has propelled South Asia into this costly arms race has been the hyper-nationalistic Bharatya Janata Party's (BJP) administration in India which has been in power for the last couple of years. A bit over zealous, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee first conducted nuclear tests in 1997, which forced Pakistan into a tit-for-tat response. Subsequently, Vajpayee and his cabal of reactionary advisors decided to mobilize troops into occupied Kashmir which led to the Kargil war. If peace is to be given a chance in the region, the BJP seriously needs to rethink its ideology and take into its fold the ideas and beliefs of more moderate elements of Indian politics, such as Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party.

Increasingly expensive and militarily significant defense deals such as the Phalcon sale are a harbinger of an expensive arms race that the people of South Asia will have to get accustomed to and endure for years to come. Moreover, such deals are unlikely to chip away at the mutual mistrust both countries share for each other, or to pave the way towards any substantial peace in the near future.