Highly classified sensitive data about the Scorpene submarine has been leaked in the public domain and alarm bells are ringing across governments that operate or are planning to induct the Scorpene in future.
The Indian Navy, which is in the process of operationalising the first of six Scorpene submarines has begun damage assessment as the Ministry of Defence goes about doing damage control.
There is no question that the leak has compromised the Navy’s operational doctrine on submarine warfare, the question now is, to what extent and what are the options before the government.
In 2005, India awarded a $3.5 billion contract to French submarine manufacturer DCNS, for transfer of technology and manufacture of six Scorpene-class submarines in India. Given the fact that these submarines will operate well into 2040s and beyond, this leak is a nightmare for the Indian defence establishment.
So who caused the leak?
The news first broke when an Australian newspaper called ‘The Australian’, first published what appeared to be the technical manual details of the Scorpene, which included details of its under and over water sensors, communication and navigation systems, Combat Management Systems (CMS) and torpedo launch systems, all highly classified information that gives the Scorpene an edge over any other submarine in its class.
Once the news broke in Australia, fingers were pointed to India as the source of leak, and Defence Minister Parikkar made a statement saying that it was possibly a hacker who accessed the information and the government had ordered an enquiry to assess the source and damage.
A recent statement by DCNS, however, said that it is probably a case of theft by an ex-French naval official and that an investigation was underway. The leak has caused a major embarrassment to the French government and the manufacturer, DCNS.
The Australian newspaper claims to be in possession of over 22,000 pages of technical information on the Scorpene, and although they did black out the vital statistics, the fact that the documents have reached the public domain is a matter of very serious concern to not just India but to Australia as well, which has recently awarded DCNS one of the biggest-ever contracts to manufacture a new generation of Scorpene class submarines in Australia.
Other countries operating the Scorpene are Malaysia and Chile, besides the French Navy, with Brazil in the process of deploying the Scorpene from 2018 onwards. All governments are very concerned about the damage caused by the leak.
China and Pakistan are salivating
The offensive capabilities of the modern day submarines lie in its stealth features, that is, in its ability to operate silently in hostile waters and avoid detection from enemy radars. This is mainly dependent on the quality of sonar technology. The other vital aspect that differentiates one submarine from the other is its CMS and on-board torpedoes, which determine its offensive and defensive capabilities.
So when information regarding this reaches the public domain, and by extension, the enemy, that can be very damaging for any country. And when a country like India, which faces a rapidly modernizing and assertive Chinese Navy on one side, and a belligerent Pakistan on the other, this information leak can indeed be very damaging.
In submarine warfare, having vital information about the enemy’s assets is critical and China has been known to go to any extent in gathering critical western technologies and information, as it embarked on a modernisation plan.
China already possesses a lot of information about the Scorpene, but this leak will help it connect the dots on technology gap between the Scorpene and its range of submarines. For Pakistan, it will be free access to China’s intellectual power. So both are wringing their hands in glee as they try to get their hands on the unedited version of the documents.
For India, that is advantage lost, as the Scorpene is known to be the best-in-class diesel-electric attack submarine at present and superior to any similar class submarine that either China or Pakistan possess.
Incidentally, Pakistan operates the Agosta class submarines made by the same French firm DCNS, but is now a generation behind the Scorpene.
Scorpene – vital to India’s naval power projection
India’s Naval power and strategic doctrine has emerged as the most important component of the government’s political, economic and diplomatic power projection and at the heart of that projection lies India’s submarine power for sea denial.
After years of remaining at the bottom of India’s defence priority, the Indian Navy in the last decade and a half has been given due attention and investment. Consequently, the Navy has been busy building assets in naval sea control and denial capability.
The Indian Navy has been relying on Russian submarine technology, mainly its Kilo class, that has been a mainstay for years. But with rapid global developments in stealth technology, the Kilo class submarines are fast moving into obsolescence.
India has been facing major maintenance and supply issues regarding supply of critical parts of Russian origin. Furthermore, the core defence technologies are remnants of the Soviet-era and mostly obsolete, and so, in order to limit its dependence on Russia, India has been seeking to diversify its military technology, to not only modernize but also to reduce its dependence on Russia.
It is in this context that India turned to French submarine maker DCNS for transfer of technology and local manufacture of its latest Scorpene-class ‘stealth’ submarines in 2005.
INS Kalvari, the first of the six Scorpene-class submarines to be Made in India, is due to be commissioned in October this year, while the rest is scheduled to be inducted every nine months thereafter. But that will now have to be reviewed.
What’s next for India?
Ministry of Defence has invested heavily on the Scorpene and therefore dumping the Scorpene at this stage is not an option. The Indian Navy will have to work closely with DCNS and their sub-systems suppliers, to see if they can change/modify/upgrade their technical specifications along with their corresponding operational software, but this process will take time and could delay operationalising the Scorpene by a couple of years.
And, that won’t be good news for India, as China is becoming more assertive and is making inroads into the Indian Ocean Region. For now, the Navy will have to continue its damage assessment and deal with emerging threat scenarios, as they happen.