S 400, COMCASA and India’s Interoperability Conundrum | Security Risks Asia Made with Humane Club

S 400, COMCASA and India’s Interoperability Conundrum

Published May 27, 2019
Updated Apr 15, 2020

Problem of intercommunications and interoperability for Indian Armed Forces due to platforms procured from multiple international partners may grow acute in the hyper networked environment

India’s defence acquisitions continue to be dependent on foreign imports despite some vigorous attempts to indigenise procurements through various measures under the Make in India Programme.

While the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2018 prioritises procurement of Buy Indian (Designed, Developed and Manufactured)’, or Buy (IDDM) the process for induction of indigenous manufactured platforms based on critical operational requirements of the Indian Armed Forces is unlikely to take off in the near future.

Given dependency on foreign suppliers, India has chosen to spread the risk of non availability, denial and sanctions by choosing systems from diverse international partners.

For instance Indian Air Force (IAF) has combat fighters of Russian (SU 30 and MiG), French (Mirage 2000 and to be inducted Rafale), Jaguar (UK) and Indian (LCA Tejas) origin.

Intercommunication between these diverse platforms has been achieved by rigging up communication channels thereby allowing transfer of data in a combat environment without a hitch.

This is supposed to have been validated in the recent Indo Pakistan skirmish on 27 February post Balakote surgical strike by the IAF on 26 February.

Reports indicate that the MiG 21 flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman vectored on the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F 16 based on data links provided from AEW & C and other platforms. PAF however continues to deny the loss of the F 16.

India and Russia have signed a contract for supply of the Russian manufactured S-400 Triumf (NATO SA-21 Growler) during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India in October 2018.

The induction of the S 400 is expected to provide an exceptional air defence cover to a large expanse of India’s Western and Northern borders.

The multifunction radar, command and control and autonomous detection, ensures that the system is capable of providing a layered defence.

This would facilitate vectoring Indian combat fighters to intercept aerial threats in real time be it enemy fighters, UAVs or missiles.

In a recent paper entitled, “Understanding why the US doesn’t want India to buy the S400,” Capt (IN) Vikram Mahajan (Retired), Director for Aersospace and Defense, India of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF)[1] contends that procurement of S 400 by India from Russia would imply that the information and data that would be shared by the United States after the two countries have inked the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) last year, “through various American sensors, including satellite, UAVs, etc.,” will not be made available as this could be compromised where there is possibility of access by the Russian S 400.

This restriction will also be applicable on NATO equipment as per Capt Mahajan, though if this will include the present fighters held is not clear.

The problem of intercommunications and interoperability of weapons platforms procured has been a perennial issue for the Indian Armed Forces.

This has been resolved through rigging of adhoc communication links, thus  even as India procured the C 17 and C 130 J before signing the COMCASA, intercommunication was being ensured in exercises as Malabar possibly with limited sharing of intelligence

With COMCASA advanced sharing of intelligence is possible which may be denied on a system that commonly shares information with S 400 in the future.

While the US is offering alternate air defence systems given that the contract has been concluded in October 2018 with Russia, India will face a major strategic dilemma of balancing two key strategic partners.

On the face of it apparently the IAF will have to work past the constraints or face penalties on procurement of the S 400 by being able to employ only Russian air defence fighters in tandem.

This problem of intercommunications and interoperability is likely to grow for Indian Armed Forces due to platforms procured from multiple international partners in the hyper networked environment

[1] The Editor is grateful to the author of the Paper Capt Vikram Mahajan and USISPF for sharing a copy of the Paper.