The navy chiefs of India, Australia, Malaysia, Chile and Brazil – countries that operate variants of the scandal-ridden Scorpene submarine – are huddling at a global symposium hosted by the US Navy in Newport, Virginia, to discuss, among other significant maritime issues, leak scandal that is roiling India
More than 22,000 pages of top secret data on the capabilities of six highly-advanced Scorpene submarines being built for the Indian Navy in Mumbai by French naval contractor DCNS at a cost of US$3.5 billion were leaked online recently, raising alarm in the countries’ defense establishments. The leaks detail the entire secret combat capability of India’s six Scorpene-class boats including specifics about underwater and above-water sensors, combat management systems, torpedo launch systems and specifications and communications and navigation systems. Variants of Scorpene submarines are also used by Malaysia, Chile and Brazil.
A worried Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised the issue with French President Francois Holland on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The leak of sensitive information – first reported by The Australian – could “provide an intelligence bonanza if obtained by India’s strategic rivals, such as Pakistan or China,” the newspaper wrote. Vice-Admiral A.K. Singh (retired), a former submariner, told The Wire that the documents were “no doubt being closely studied in Islamabad and Beijing … I am going through them slowly but I reckon this has saved the Chinese and Pakistanis 20-30 years of espionage.”
DCNS has said that French national security authorities are investigating the size, seriousness and cause of the leak, which, it said, could be part of “an economic war” with competitors who it beat for a massive US$38 billion contract in Australia. “As a serious matter pertaining to the Indian Scorpene program, French national authorities for defense security will formally investigate and determine the exact nature of the leaked documents,” a DCNS spokeswoman said in a statement.
“Multiple and independent controls exist within DCNS to prevent unauthorised access to data and all data movements are encrypted and recorded,” according to DCNS. “In the case of India, where a DCNS design is built by a local company, DCNS is the provider and not the controller of technical data.”
India has written to French authorities to urgently probe the leak and share the findings. A panel headed by a vice admiral is conducting a detailed assessment of the potential impact of the leak on India’s program.
Some Indian naval officers are of the considered view that the leak could be the direct result of cut-throat competition between rival submarine manufacturers. “It is a high stakes game, the business of building submarines,” one navy officer who preferred to remain anonymous told Asia Sentinel. “And such tactics can be adopted as desperate measures by manufacturers out to malign competitors in a tough market and adverse economic climate.”
While Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has downplayed the incident by calling it a “hacking,” Indian submarine experts say the leak could be potentially disastrous and is a body blow for the Indian navy. It could also have serious ramifications for India as it lays bare the Scorpene-class submarines, the Indian Navy and national security itself.
“The leak is also a security threat because the documents relate to information about the entire secret combat capability and operating instructions of underwater warfare system of the six Scorpene submarines. Such information in the hands of the enemy makes it a potent weapon and a major security breach for the Indian Navy,” said security analyst Manish Kakkar, formerly with Defence Research and Development Organization, the country’s premier R&D organization.
The Scorpene’s history in India goes back to 1999 when the Cabinet Committee on Security had approved the Navy’s 30-year indigenous submarine programme to replace the aging fleet, under which 12 submarines were to be built with foreign collaboration and inducted by 2012. The know-how was to help India build subs indigenously by 2030.
With an aim to bolster India’s military capability, the Narendra Modi government, in October 2014, cleared a US$1 billion contract to build six more GenNext subs. The submarine, with cutting-edge attack power, was ordered as a countermove against China, which has been expanding both its sub-continental influence and underwater fleet. China has 51 conventional and five nuclear submarines at sea compared to India’s 14. Fears are also being expressed that even with generic data, an adversary such as China can assess the submarine’s strength and leverage the information to attack India.
Worse, India’s arch rival Pakistan, which operates Agosta submarines also built by DCNS, is also on a furious expansion spree egged on by Beijing. Islamabad is also in talks with China for buying a new set of submarines and add to its fleet of 11 subs. Analysts fear this will bridge the gap between the operational strength of the Indian navy and Pakistan’s.
The first of the Scorpene class submarines being built in India Kalvari went for sea trials in May, and is expected to be inducted in the Indian Navy soon. Indian Navy officials have said the six submarines, once inducted, would form the bedrock of the Navy’s submarine arm for the next two decades.
Meanwhile, The Australian has been prohibited from publishing any additional documents. It has already withdrawn the leaked information, and says it will provide DCNS with all the documents in its possession.
Another immediate fallout of the scandal, a ministry official told AS, is that India will likely nix its proposed order for three new submarines from DCNS, in addition to the six it is already building in the country. “Once bitten twice shy,” said the official. “Though the official probe will ultimately unearth the real villain behind the leak, the impression in the Indian defence establishment is that a manufacturing company that can’t safeguard basic confidentiality tenets, can’t be trusted with such big ticket deals in the future.”
Neeta Lal is a senior New Delhi-based journalist and regular correspondent for Asia Sentinel.