By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Aug 16
Faced with a potentially disastrous information leak that could blunt the operational edge of six Scorpene conventional submarines that India is building under licence from French shipyard, DCNS, the Indian Navy is carefully downplaying concerns.
On Thursday, a day after a reputed Melbourne daily, The Australian, reported the leak of 22,400 pages of technical information about India’s Scorpene submarines from DCNS, New Delhi stated: “The documents that have been posted on the website by an Australian news agency have been examined and do not pose any security compromise as the vital parameters have been blacked out.”
The Australian has indeed redacted (blacked out) sections of the Scorpene documents that it deemed highly sensitive. However, the documents were made available to The Australian in full, without redaction. Whoever shared it with the newspaper remains in possession of reams of technical information about the Scorpene.
Admirals in New Delhi admit there is no way of knowing where that information has gone. The Australian noted that “the DCNS documents detail the most sensitive combat capabilities of India’s new $US3 bn ($3.9bn) submarine fleet and would provide an intelligence bonanza if obtained by India’s strategic rivals, such as Pakistan or China.”
New Delhi admits to this possibility only reluctantly, stating: “The Government of India, as a matter of abundant precaution, is also examining the impact if the information contained in the documents claimed to be available with the Australian sources is compromised.”
Business Standard learnt that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar passed orders on Wednesday evening to urgently pursue the matter with the French side. The defence ministry announced today: “The Indian Navy has taken up the matter with Director General of Armament of the French Government expressing concern over this incident and has requested the French Government to investigate this incident with urgency and share their findings with the Indian side. The matter is being taken up with concerned foreign governments through diplomatic channels to verify the authenticity of the reports.”
Off-the-record, a senior Indian Navy official scoffs at The Australian’s claim of having accessed 22,400 pages of Scorpene data. “The newspaper’s webpage carries links to just 13 pages of documentation. How do we know they have actually seen 22,400 pages? As things stand today, it is only a claim”, he says.
Another well-informed navy officer avers that the documents leaked by The Australian do not tally with the Scorpene documentation DCNS provided to India. “Our analysis suggests the leaked documents relate to the Scorpenes in service with Malaysia and Chile. There is also data relating to the Mistral helicopter carrier vessel that Russia is buying. But the documents we hold are different”, he says.
If that is so, it remains unexplained why the leaked documents, which are available on The Australian’s website, bear a red stamp saying: “Restricted Scorpene India”.
Navy officials are also taking pains to argue --- without having seen all the leaked documents --- that the information put out consists only of broad technical specifications that are freely available in commercial documents. They argue that key submarine attributes like “audio signature”, which is unique to each vessel, remains secret. Furthermore, since the Scorpene weapons package, including torpedoes and surface attack missiles, have not yet been fitted, weaponry details could not have been leaked.
Even so, a wary Parrikar has tossed the ball into the hands of a committee. Said a ministry statement today: “The detailed assessment of potential impact is being undertaken by a high level committee constituted by the Ministry of Defence and the Indian Navy is taking all necessary steps to mitigate any probable security compromise.”
Given how vital the Scorpene is to the navy’s submarine capability, it is unsurprising the impact of the leak is being played down. To meet its operational needs, the navy assesses it requires 24-26 submarines. Currently, there are just 13 operational submarines, of which just 8-10 are functional at any given time. The six Scorpenes being built by Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) under Project 75 are, therefore, vital.
Equally vital is the long-delayed Project 75-I, which involves building another six submarines. Every major submarine builder, including Russia, Sweden, Germany and Japan is aspiring for this order, as is DCNS. This leak, however, coming on top of a four-year delay and major cost escalation in building the Scorpene, cannot but damage DCNS’ prospects in India.
Ironically, many are assessing that the document leak was not aimed at India, but at scuppering DCNS’ USD 38 billion contract to build the Shortfin Barracuda submarine for the Australian Navy, which it won in April. The French company said on Wednesday that it might be the victim of “economic warfare”.