India is aiming to modernize its strategic arsenal with the introduction of advanced US and Russian defense systems. However, some military experts say that while the South Asian giant needs foreign technologies to become a self-sufficient arms manufacturer – and autonomous global geopolitical player – technical problems could limit their coexistence.

The Indian government finalized the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense missile system earlier this month and is said to be considering the purchase of the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) from the United States.

Aside from geopolitical considerations related to Washington’s secondary sanctions against Moscow, the inclusion of these two platforms in India’s developing multi-tiered air defense network could pose problems of compatibility.

Turkey, a US ally in the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), is coping with similar challenges while going ahead with the S-400’s procurement. America and other Nato countries argue that the Russian system cannot be integrated with the alliance’s defense framework as it presents problems of interoperability. By this reasoning, the S-400 should also not be compatible with the NASAMS – which is built by the US Raytheon National in cooperation with Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace of Norway.

The crucial question for Delhi, as well as Washington and the Kremlin, is determining whether the two systems can coexist as part India’s  prospective air defense framework.

India has already deployed the Israeli-manufactured SPYDER air defense system and will co-develop a Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) platform for the army with Israel Aerospace Industries. In addition, they are working on an indigenous Ballistic Missile Defense shield, which will be equipped with Swordfish radar, a variant of an Israeli model.

Interoperability problems

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the US$5.3 billion deal on the S-400 on October 5. Washington has several times threatened to impose sanctions on India for acquiring Russian arms systems.

According to the Countering America’s Adversaries Sanctions Act (CAATSA) – which the US Congress passed in response to Russia’s alleged meddling in American politics and armed intervention in Syria and Ukraine – the US government can penalize countries that engage in “significant transactions” with Russia’s intelligence and military sectors. That said, it seems US President Donald Trump is ready to grant a waiver to Delhi.

India, historically a big purchaser of Russian weapons, is buying more advanced US military items. However, this diversification of arms suppliers could undermine Delhi’s efforts to set up a national grid connecting all its air and missile defenses. The S-400 and the NASAMS have different encryption systems, and this will force the Indian Air Force to integrate them into its command and control system separately. Without exception, air and missile shields are still largely untested against multiple enemy attacks and India’s patchy defense network could prove to be even less capable.

Retired Indian Major General Shashi Asthana told Asia Times that his country had gotten used to handling weapons platforms from Russia, the US, Israel and France under its “Make in India” industrial initiative. “Defense self-sufficiency is the best option for India, but the transition to this stage through a transfer of technology and its absorption will take some time,” he said. “We have signed the deal on the S-400 for the interim period because we need a variety of systems for our multi-layered air defense umbrella.”

There are also economic reasons behind the Modi administration’s decision to turn to different foreign suppliers, Asthana added. “India has been the world’s largest buyer of military equipment in recent years and is seeking to strike competitive deals.” However, he admitted that the Indian armed forces would have shortcomings in interoperability “until the country becomes self-reliant.”

Leaking of defense secrets

As to whether codes and technology linked to NASAMS batteries could be exposed to data collection by S-400 units operated by the Indian military, and vice versa, Alexander Savelyev,  chief research fellow at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said that such interference was technically possible. But he noted the two systems should first be reprogrammed with the help of specialists authorized by the suppliers, which is presumably prohibited by both the US and Russia.

Questions have reportedly been raised about the possibility of Moscow having access to Nato’s technical data and defense secrets should Russian technicians assist Turkey in deploying the S-400. Asthana, who is currently a chief instructor at Delhi-based think-tank United Service Institution of India, dismissed this concern. “The problems of secrecy [in supporting incompatible assets such as the S-400 and the NASAMS] are normally dealt with by way of specific contract clauses and the conclusion of COMCASA-like accords with the countries concerned,” he said.

India and the US inked the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) last month. Such a pact will allow both countries to share communication and satellite data and ease Delhi’s access to high-end US defense products.