The move is the latest sign of the Modi government’s deepening ties with Israel amid its simmering tensions with China.

India has finalised the deal to purchase four Heron MK II drones from Israel, amid simmering tensions between New Delhi and China, the Jerusalem Post reported on Wednesday. 

India is expecting to receive all the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the end of 2021, and plans to use the Israeli drones for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes at its border with China. 

“With their long-range radars and sensors, anti-jamming capability and the ability to reach an altitude of 35,000-feet, the Heron Mark-II drones will be able to gather all kinds of intelligence across the LAC without even flying close to it,” The Times of India reported in May, quoting a source in the government.  

The deal between India and Israel, worth $200 million, was first signed in January but Covid-19 delayed the arrival of the UAVs. Before the deal, India was initially planning to lease the air systems for three years. 

In a planned operation dubbed “Project Cheetah”, the Indian Air Force will be using 90 Heron drones to conduct longer surveillance missions, and arm missiles with advanced satellite communication and sensors, as well as possibly with air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided munitions for precision strikes. 

READ MORE: What’s behind the China-India border dispute?

More than 180 Israeli UAVs, including 68 Heron 1s are currently being used for surveillance and intelligence gathering by the Indian Air Force. The new Heron II is an upgraded version of the original Heron UAVs that were purchased by India over the years. Although smaller in size, the original Herons cannot be armed.

“The deal is a testament to our customers’ strong satisfaction with the Heron UAVs, including their operational and technical performance. Our customers repeatedly choose the Heron for its broad range of intelligence collection missions in different ground and weather settings,” Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) president and CEO Boaz Levy said in January at the time of the signing.

Border stand-off with China

The drone purchase came as tensions have simmered between India and China amid an ongoing military confrontation in the Ladakh region since early May last year.

The root of the dispute is over the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a more than 4,000-km-long but loose border that India and China share. 

In August 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government annexed the disputed state of Kashmir, revoked its semi-autonomous status, annulled its separate constitution, split the area into two federal territories (Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir) and removed inherited protections on land and jobs.

READ MORE: Timeline: the Line of Actual Control between China and India

China, on the other hand, doesn’t recognise the Ladakh central government established by India, saying it’s ‘illegal.” It also opposes India’s military infrastructure construction at the border. 

The standoff between the two Asian giants turned into a violent skirmish in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, as bilateral ties reached a new low.

For its surveillance missions, the Indian Navy has been using two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones that were leased from an American firm in November last year. 

India’s deepening ties with Israel

While New Delhi and Tel Aviv have been getting closer in recent years, their relationship wasn’t always as friendly. 

“Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French,” Mahatma Gandhi famously said in 1938. Following independence in 1947, Indian politicians had regularly defended Palestinian freedom.

India first established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. Even though then-Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao continued to support the Palestinian cause, it dramatically changed after Modi came to power in 2014. 

Modi's Hindu nationalist government now considers Israel, also sharing an ethnonationalist worldview, a strategic partner. Agriculture, trade, defence and technology are some of the fields that both right-wing governments are cooperating on.

Source: TRT World