Scorpene submarine debacle: a saga of leaked intelligence

INS Kalvari sent to the dock for setting afloat to naval dockyard Photograph:( Others )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Aug 29, 2016, 05.53 AM (IST)

This is a mystery of the gravest order — one that involves India’s maritime preparedness, strategic interests, and her future role in guarding the seas around her. The ‘sensitive’ 22,400-page document, delineating the nitty-gritty of the Scorpene submarines that India had commissioned to invigorate her naval operations, has been leaked out. It can only spell disaster for New Delhi that has as its close neighbours, Pakistan and China, both of which will go to great lengths to secure this sort of prized classified information, unless, of course, they haven’t already laid their hands on it.

Is corporate espionage a possibility?

How did the documents land up at the office of the newspaper, The Australian, is still in the realm of conjecture. Who opened the sluice gate of such critical information, whether a lone wolf or a bunch of people, that puts at stake a Rs 50,000 crore defence deal to build six Scorpene-class submarines, is still cloaked in mystery. But the tremors from the release are already being felt in the corridors of power in India’s capital. Union defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, has been fielding embarrassing, but extremely pertinent, questions about this devastating breach of security, and the extent of damage the revelations have caused.

There is a not-so-subtle hint at corporate espionage as the DCNS, a French industrial group specialised in naval defence and energy, claimed that it may have been at the receiving end of an “economic warfare”. Minister Parrikar says it could be a case of hacking and that India’s naval chief has been assigned the job of studying the entire issue.

Global attention

It is for a reason that the leaks have attracted global attention as Malaysia, Chile, and Brazil all use a variant of the Scorpene. It means the navies of all these countries have become vulnerable in the wake of the information spill. The DCNS’s credibility has nosedived at a time when it has just won a major contract to supply its new range of Shortfin Barracuda submarines to Australia. Little wonder, The Australian spilled the beans to safeguard its country’s interests. It has served a warning to its government about the possible consequences of involving a manufacturer whose secret chest of information can be prised open.

Deepwater detection

Since submarines operate on the three principles of stealth, concealment, and surprise, it is but natural to assume that India’s defence establishment has been inflicted a crushing blow by unknown adversaries. If the leaked data laid bare the stealth capabilities of the Scorpene, such as the frequencies at which it gathers intelligence, the noise emitted at various speed levels, the diving depths, range and endurance, magnetic and electro-magnetic data, propeller noise, speed conditions for periscope use and torpedo launches, one presumes there is nothing much left to imagination. The newspaper may have redacted some sensitive information for India’s sake, but India’s enemies won’t be that gracious.

Stuttering start

The Scorpene deal stumbled right from the start. In 2005, when the deal was inked with DCNS, the costs were pegged at Rs. 180 billion. Subsequent delays led to cost escalation to the tune of Rs. 500 billion. As part of the deal, it was decided that DCNS would transfer technology as well as train personnel at the Mazagon Dock Limited in Mumbai where the ships were being constructed. In hindsight, the timing of the leak doesn’t come as a surprise either. The first of the six submarines, INS Kalavari, had gone for sea trials in May, and would be inducted into service later this year.

However, this delay in implementing the project may have proved to be a silver lining for India’s defence establishment; the tranche of documents accessed by the newspaper, detailing the subs’ operational systems is about five to six years old. It could be a saving grace that India’s dithering over finalising the Scorpene’s weapons systems may have prevented this sensitive information from being part of the exposed secrets. The other beneficial aspects pertain to the indigenised systems of the Scorpene that India has developed. Because of this, the vendors’ role has been limited to just providing sockets for plug-ins. Again, it’s all a matter of speculation, and for all practical purposes, India will try and downplay the security breach to save itself from further embarrassment.

Will Scorpene tests the waters?

Ironically, even before seeing some real action on the waterfront, the Scorpene deal is trapped in the swirling tide of controversies. It has also underscored how vulnerable India’s security establishment has been as it is periodically rocked by expos?s of nefarious arms deals. The ghost of the Bofors manifests itself in various forms and has dogged defence purchases ever since. It also explains the apparent reluctance of a clutch of defence ministers in previous governments to modernise India’s aging military equipment. Today, the armed forces are hobbled by rusty warships and number of doddering aircraft.

It now remains to be seen if the Scorpene fiasco impacts the Rafale aircraft deal that the French government is desperate to ink with India. This is also the time to ask a couple of hard-hitting questions. How safe is India’s defence secrets since the defence sector has gone for 100 per cent foreign direct investment under a new liberalised policy by the Narendra Modi government?