By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Aug 16
An important section of the Indian Navy headquarters in New Delhi has changed its biorhythm to Melbourne time, monitoring The Australian newspaper as it publishes leaked documents containing the operational secrets of India’s new Scorpene submarines.
As The Australian incrementally publishes tranches from the 22,400 pages of sensitive documents that it indicates were leaked from French shipbuilder, DCNS, naval planners in Delhi scour them in real time for information that might make India’s Scorpene submarine fleet sitting ducks in combat.
The newspaper is redacting the documents it publishes, blacking out data it deems particularly sensitive. Indian officials, including Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on Friday, say they are catering for a “best case scenario”, and “worst case scenario”. The latter encompasses the possibility that the full version of the documents have fallen into hostile hands, and six Scorpene submarines that will join the navy’s fleet by 2019 have been operationally compromised.
A “high-level committee” has been established in the defence ministry to evaluate the extent of the damage.
Surprisingly, defence ministry sources say DCNS has not yet responded to an Indian query about how, when and to what extent Scorpene operational data has been compromised. With DCNS silent, the navy is comparing the leaked trove of documents, as they are published in The Australian, with the documents in India.
Yet, the defence ministry is displaying remarkable tolerance of the leaks from DCNS, despite those being apparent violations of non-disclosure clauses that form a part of the Scorpene contract.
“We cannot say for sure whether DCNS has violated a non-disclosure clause. What happens if the information was stolen, or hacked from DCNS networks?” argues a MoD official.
Nor is the defence ministry willing to comment on whether this leak will affect DCNS’s chances of bagging an order for additional Scorpenes, beyond the six already contracted under Project 75. Officials say DCNS even remains eligible for Project 75-I --- India’s proposed purchase of six conventional submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP).
“We are evaluating the situation as information is released”, says an official.
Ministry officials remain perplexingly sanguine about what analysts world-wide regard as an extremely worrying leak of data relating to operational capability --- including electromagnetic frequencies for intelligence gathering, details of the Scorpene’s sonar system, including the frequency of its various arrays and approximate acoustic signature, including that of its propeller. Much of the compromised data is not yet publicly known, since The Australian has published only a tiny portion of the documents it claims to have.
“A submarine is a highly customized weapon system. The navy has selected the equipment for the Indian Scorpene; in fact, some of the weapon systems have not yet been chosen. The 5-6 year-old data that has been leaked relates to a generic version of the Scorpene, perhaps the Chilean or Malaysian submarine, not to the customized Indian vessel”, explains one official.
The Indian Navy has arrived at this conclusion after reviewing just 13 published pages out of the 22,400 pages that The Australian claims it has reviewed.
Says another official, downplaying the leak: “Vendors like DCNS freely supply generic information to any prospective customer. It is like a Maruti car dealer, who will supply details of a car to any customer who requests it.”
Asked why the leaked documents bear the Indian Navy logo, are translated from French into English, and have each page stamped with the logo “Restricted Scorpene India”; defence ministry officials explain that could be because DCNS, and other French vendors like Thales, had customized the documents for India.
That, however, would indicate that the leaked documents related to the customized Indian version of the Scorpene.
On the plus side, New Delhi’s years of delay in choosing weapon systems for the Scorpene might have worked to the navy’s advantage. The long-range torpedo, a submarine’s primary weapon, has not yet been selected --- partly because the vendor chosen earlier was WASS, a subsidiary of the sanctioned Finmeccanica group.
Other systems, like electronic warfare equipment and sonar, may have been saved from exposure because they have been substantially indigenized. The French vendors, DCNS and Thales, are required to merely provide plug-in slots that will house the secret Indian equipment.